All posts by Stan

What I’ve Been Watching This Month (February 2017)

It’s a busy time right now, personally and professionally, and I’ve been putting as much of my available “extra” energy and time into the ongoing development of new podcasts for “My Radio.” One result is that I’ve not been preparing as many blogs about my current listening, reading, and watching.

Let me just give a quick update now about shows I am following in the early part of 2017:

In January, I watched all episodes currently available of Star Wars: Rebels. I really like this series for a number of reasons, including the characters, the connections and continuities with established Star Wars canon, and Kevin Kiner’s music, which pays appropriate homage to John Williams’s themes and scores without being stuck to those materials or merely derivative.

I have also been watching Masterpiece Theatre’s “Victoria,” a period drama about the queen of Great Britain. The cast is outstanding (I am especially impressed by Jenna Coleman’s performance as Victoria, and Rufus Sewell’s as Lord Melbourne), and I also think the music is quite strong.

I recommend both series to you.

Christmas Holiday Blog, 2016

Merry Christmas!

I hope you enjoy the images of Christmases long ago scattered within this post. If you keep reading, you’ll learn more about them!
Part I

A friend of mine recently asked me what traditions my family followed for Christmas. I was hard pressed to come up with anything terribly specific or interesting. We don’t consistently eat anything special on Christmas Eve, and since my parents, and then my wife and I, have all been church musicians, most Christmas Eves (and sometimes Christmas Day itself) have been working holidays. I guess I can safely say that music more than anything else connects me to a sense of Christmases past.

I’m not especially troubled that highly complex or richly textured “traditions” have not accumulated around my personal celebration or experience of Christmas. Many of the “traditions” embedded in the general nostalgic patina of this holiday—and enshrined on keep-sake chinaware and holiday cards (which—guilty!—I also like to send) were relatively new, even in the early twentieth century, given the millennia that Christians have been observing this holiday.

Nevertheless, I would say that as a child, my favorite parts of Christmas were setting up the nativity sets in our house and listening to an old LP my father had of a dramatic reading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. That story remains an important part of my personal sense of tradition around the Christmas holiday, as does the carol, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which I first heard on that LP. And I loved traveling to Fulton, New York, on Christmas to spend the day with my cousins, or having them come to Syracuse to visit us. Those Christmases with my cousins are important memories, if not exactly “traditions.” And it meant a lot to me recently when my daughter Madison asked me if this year she was going to hear me practice a piano rondo that I composed on Christmas carols. That piece of mine has apparently become part of her sense of the holiday, even though I only composed it five years ago. Well, I suppose traditions have to start somewhere!

Part II

I have always been fascinated by my family history, as my father was before me. A few weeks ago, I dug into a box of old family cards and letters that my father had saved from my Grandmother Pelkey’s estate. Lyma May (Strong) Pelkey would have been 111 years old this Christmas! Imagine my surprise to find one-hundred-year-old postcards that Lyma had carefully preserved in that box! I also discovered that my grandma was named “Lima” at birth, and not “Lyma”!

(This is the earliest dated postcard in the collection: 1908 according to the postal cancellation stamp.)

As a historian, I was fascinated by the postcards not just because of their age and because they physically linked me to a long-gone age (several cards pre-date the beginning of World War I), but also because they showed me that even in the 1910s, there was a nostalgic quality to the Christmas iconography that my own Grandmother Pelkey (that is, Lima Strong) experienced as a little girl in Willsboro, New York.

(Postcards from 1912 and 1915 according to dates on their backs.)

And it may be that this is the strongest “tradition” that links together most fully all of us citizens of Christmases past and Christmas present: we are all bathed in the warm light of nostalgia. No matter how far back we push, we never reach the “golden age” of Christmas “long, long ago”.

(A postcard from 1914 — the first Christmas of World War I.)

Part III

But you know what: That’s perfectly OK! There’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia, at least in small doses now and then. But what I need to keep reminding myself is that “peace on earth, goodwill to all human kind” will not be found someday, “long, long ago.” The path to peace and goodwill is before us, and it is paved by the large and small decisions that each of us will have to make in 2017, 2018, 2019….

I really do want to live the promise of Christmas, the promise made possible by Emmanuel. So I am readying myself for a new commitment to gift giving—but not just gifts wrapped up in paper and tied with bows. I mean daily gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, each offered to those around me and to myself when I (inevitably) will fail.

Will you join me?

Will you help to hold me accountable?

There have been too many “bah, humbug” moments on the path behind me—perhaps you feel the same way? I really don’t want to go back, nor turn back.

I’m ready for a lot more “God bless us, every one!” going forward.

Come on! Let’s go! Let’s make it happen!

(And if you need a soundtrack to help launch your journey, come back on December 24 for my Christmas Eve music podcast!)


December 23, 2016

(An undated postcard from the same collection of a little girl ice skating; the image already seems dream-like, nostalgic.) 

This is not a Christmas postcard, but it was among the postcards my Grandmother saved from her childhood. Grandma Pelkey was a snazzy dresser — that’s one of the things I remember most clearly about her. I can only imagine the impression an image like this may have made on her when she was about ten–after all, she saved two such cards, and they are the only duplicates in her collection.     SCP

What I’m Listening To This Month (December): Jerry Leake’s Latest Album

A Review of Jerry Leake’s latest album, Crafty Hands (2016)

Stan Pelkey

December 13, 2016

Boston-based world-rock-fusion percussionist Jerry Leake is a special kind of musician. He deftly moves in and through numerous traditions from around the world – with deep respect and gratitude – yet also comfortably resides in contemporary styles and forms. But more than that, in his latest release, Crafty Hands (2016), Jerry offers listeners new pieces in which he combines and recombines his many musical interests and passions. One could use words such as “eclectic” and “collage” to describe the results, but these do not adequately capture the coherence and musically satisfying nature of Jerry’s accomplishments. The image that comes to my mind is of a colorful kaleidoscope, where an ever-so-slight turn shifts distinct bits into an entirely new and vibrant pattern. One can listen to and for the distinct musical inflections or instruments from West Africa, the Middle East, and India, but it is the coherent new soundscapes—always delightful and often deeply moving—that really matter.

Throughout the 13 tracks of Crafty Hands, Leake sets up wonderful grooves over which he lays out densely textured but changing surfaces. Tracks such as “Crafty Hands,” “Apprentice,” “Do You Think Your Thoughts,” “Dub Clef,” and “Begin by Listening” start with West African rhythmic cells and/or textures that incorporate West African timbres but quickly add more and more component parts until their full musical vistas emerge. In “Crafty Hands,” Jerry’s own singing voice takes center stage by mid-track, surrounded by a halo of bells, shakers, and strings, before the opening textures and grooves reassert themselves. In “Begin by Listening”—one of my favorite tracks—an appropriately authoritative voice assures us “It’s all just sounds” as the West African groove provides the foundation for that voice, a turntable, distorted, sampled chanting, and a jubilant reed to each make contributions. And just when you think this track or others have settled into their final textural forms, still there are more twists and turns as Jerry continues to transform his materials.

My brief comments only scratch the surface of Jerry’s music, and they completely fail to capture the beauty of “Time Tunnel” and “String Theory,” two more of my favorites. Here again, Jerry sets up grooves and amazing, changing surfaces, yet the timbres and combinations are different enough in these two tracks from those in the others that the album remains fresh and unpredictable. And then Jerry drops into your headphones a track such as “Blue Water,” which diverges significantly from the others, and you are once more left in awe of his creativity and ability to synthesize new worlds of sound.

The bottom line? Crafty Hands is an album of gorgeous music that will reward repeated listening. But it is also an album with a powerful — if implicit — political message. While there are relatively few words, and those that exist are not overtly political, Jerry’s soundscapes both celebrate and embody cultural diversity and the new possibilities that can emerge as we draw upon the best of all of us. Whether intended or not, that is a profoundly important political, social, and cultural statement. As the final track urges us, “Begin by listening.”

I highly recommend Crafty Hands to you.

What I’ve Been Watching (November)

The recent Thanksgiving Break provided some time for much need rest and relaxation, but it also allowed me to catch up on some film viewing. Here are some brief reflections on current and recent films.

The family and I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J. K. Rowling’s latest film set within the Harry Potter universe, though without the “boy who lived.” This was an outstanding film, well-conceived, well-acted, and well-designed and implemented. Not only was I thrilled to have the chance to revisit Rowling’s magical universe, but there was so much new material (and just enough knowing glances toward the Harry Potter series) that I did not miss Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest at all. Go see this film and experience it on the big screen. Even if you are not a huge Potter fan, seeing the ensemble–mostly adults in this case–playing their parts so well (and clearly enjoying them) is a treat.

I also finally had the chance to watch The Nice Guys. Like Fantastic Beasts, which is set in the 1920s, Nice Guys looks back in time, in this case to the 1970s. That decade does not get the kind of attention that the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s do. Perhaps it has been “too recent” for current generations of film makers to revisit. But the familiarity and unfamiliarity of the 1970s makes for compelling storytelling, if done well. This film did it well. Not for the faint of heart (the themes are adult and there is a substantial amount of violence), The Nice Guys nevertheless offers witty dialogue, great pacing of plot, interesting characters, and another outstanding ensemble of actors. While not as visually spectacular as Fantastic Beasts, it is still very colorful — more so than action films from the 1970s!

Lastly, Kubo and the Two Strings is a magnificent, family-friendly film that celebrates family affection but also powerfully endorses creativity, storytelling, and music making. Indeed, music repeatedly plays critical roles within the plot itself, and the final resolution of conflict — true resolution, not violent suppression of one side or the other — is achieved through music itself. Kubo is a gorgeous production; one can appreciation it without knowing much about its artistic or cultural contexts or inspirations, though if you’ve seen some Japanese or Japanese-inspired animation, you will probably catch many subtle visual and situational references. My family was struck at times by subtle linkages to the Last Airbender animated television series, as well as classic Hayao Miyasaki films.

I also wrapped up watching Season 2 of The Leftovers in November, but my reflection on that series will have to wait for another post. Like so many of you, I cannot wait for the arrival of Rogue One in theaters. I will blog about that movie in December.

Happy holidays!


What I’ve Been Reading (November)

Cameron Pyke, Benjamin Britten and Russia (Boydell Press, 2016).

This exceptionally well-written and well-researched study by Cameron Pyke (Dulwich College and University of London) explores many of the ways Benjamin Britten engaged with Russian composers, musicians, and literature against the backdrop of Anglo-Soviet cultural and political relationships, particularly from the 1930s through the early 1970s.

Pyke organizes the book thematically, but there is a broad chronological shape to the whole. The first four chapters are devoted to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, the Russian composers whose music most appealed to Britten. Pyke’s nuanced discussion of Britten’s changing and problematic relationship with Stravinsky is welcome and provides an additional context for understanding why Shostakovich became so important to Britten. The fifth chapter focuses on Britten’s visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and early 1970s. Chapter six considers Pushkin’s influence on Britten and the composer’s engagement with Russian performance styles. The final chapter returns to Britten and Shostakovich, focusing on their friendship in later life and their concerns regarding war and death.

To build his case, Pyke draws thoroughly from journals, letters by Benjamin Britten and others, new interviews with people who knew both Britten and Shostakovich or were involved with Britten’s trips to the Soviet Union, reviews of performances, and Britten’s library of scores. Pyke’s use of these sources is convincing; taken together, they support  his contextual and interpretive points. Furthermore, Pyke’s insightful analysis of Britten’s compositions, complete with many notated examples, highlights the composer’s preoccupations in light of the quartet of featured Russian figures he stresses in the first four chapters of the book. Indeed, Pyke’s discussions of the music of both Britten and Shostakovich throughout the study are high points in this exceptional book.

I highly recommend Pyke’s Benjamin Britten and Russia. It is one of the best studies of music I have read in quite some time.

Stan Pelkey

November 18, 2016

What I’ve Been Reading (September)

Paul S. Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I have read a number of books from Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series, including Kathryn Kalinak’s on Film Music, John Polkinghorne’s on Quantum Theory, and several on world religions and ethics. Paul Boyer’s American History did not disappoint. It is the perfect refresher on US history, and I found the chapters on the colonial period, the revolutionary era, the early republic, and the Civil War particularly valuable. It was also interesting to read the final chapter, which traced American history from the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the present—an era that overlaps completely with my own life. To see (and feel) this period treated as “history”—and to observe my own emotive reaction to this experience—was fascinating, but I also found Boyer’s linkages of events, trends, causes and effects over those four decades convincing and his assessments compelling. One of the final chapter’s subsections, “Historic Election; Uncertain Future,” which covers the presidency of Mr. Obama, also gave more flesh to the idea of the “long shadow of 9/11” and left me contemplating—not for the first time—that the growth, prosperity, and relative peace of the 1990s (years when I attended graduate school, began my career, and celebrated the birth or my children)—rather than the conflict, economic insecurity (real or only perceived), and rancorous partisanship so prevalent since 2000—may be the aberration in post-1970s American society (and history).

Stan Pelkey

October 1, 2016




What I’ve Been Watching (And the Emmy Goes To…)

It’s September, and the Emmy Awards were given out this past weekend.

I am very pleased that three of my favorite current show — Mr. Robot (currently in season two), Game of Thrones, and VEEP did so well. (I am also pleased that The Good Wife received a few awards; it’s another of my favorite shows, and I will miss it.)

Surveying the nominees and winners lists, it is clear that the television that critics and audience most love right now is mostly being produced by and aired on pay channels and other platforms beyond the big three networks. I still watch a few comedies on the BIG THREE, but I’ve almost stopped watching drama on them (The Good Wife was an exception).

All that said, congrats to Rami Malek from Mr. Robot for winning Outstanding Lead Actor / Drama Series . That was well deserved. Malek’s character is complex and compelling, and he plays the part flawlessly. If you have not watched an episode of Mr. Robot, do so just to experience how expressive (and pained) Rami Malek’s eyes can be. Congratulations, too, to Mac Quayle for his well-earned prize for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (e.g., Mr. Robot). I was not sure that a series that had such an amazing twist in season 1 would be able to sustain interest in season 2; but Mr. Robot is not just plot-driven and twist-driven: it has characters that I’ve really come to care about, even though I feel like we have nothing in common with each other. And who doesn’t like a good conspiracy show with a non-linear narrative?

I am also so pleased that VEEP won best comedy and that Julia Louis-Dreyfus won Outstanding Lead Actress / Comedy Series. VEEP is amazing: the writing is perfect, the ensemble cast is stellar, and  Louis-Dreyfus as lead is simply astonishing. She’s developed perfect timing for comic delivery, and when her petite character mouths off with the best of the male politicians on the show, it is stunning. There was a scene this past season when she absolutely crushed a stereotypical, holier-than-thou, midwesterner, and it was priceless! (And I saw that as a holier-than-thou midwesterner!) While I am not yet so cynical as to think there is no good in government, big business, or large organizations generally, the unrelentingly savage depiction of organization incompetence is exquisite if for no other reason than it is a powerful demonstration that we live in a society that protects the right of people to create a series that savages the incompetence of government, big business, and bureaucracy generally and the hubris (and stupidity) of the agents of those entities. It is therefore fitting and right that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which also received a number of nominations for awards, follows VEEP on Sundays on HBO, because that show also unrelentingly savages real-life organizational and governmental incompetence.

As much as I love Mr. Robot, I am pleased that Game of Thrones received the award for Outstanding Drama Series. This sixth season was tremendous. GoT received other awards, too, and numerous nominations — not surprisingly, many of those nominations centered on two of the most powerful episodes this season: “The Door” and “Battle of the Bastards.” Game of Thrones is also unrelenting (like VEEP) in refusing to whitewash the worst aspects of human nature, but at least it presents those worst aspects within a richly textured imaginary world that is a joy to see, with morally complex characters acted by a stellar cast, all accompanied by great music. Congrats to all the GoT actors and actresses who received nominations. You are tops in my book!

OK, back to the sofa for more viewing…. Tomorrow night is the season finale for Mr. Robot.

Stan Pelkey

September 20, 2016


Saving Money by Cutting a Music Program is Harder than You Think!

Hello, Readers!

This is a slightly edited version of a post that I published in May 2016. I hope you find it useful.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I was recently talking with several graduate music students about threats of underfunding or complete elimination of a music program or unit at a college or university by senior administrators looking for ways to save money. Such risks are real because music programs do tend to cost more to run than do many other programs: we have specialized equipment and our studio model of individualized lesson instruction is expensive.

I began thinking about these issues about a decade ago when the provost at one of my prior colleges considered eliminating a studio faculty line when a senior music professor retired. In higher education today, provosts routinely pull back faculty lines after retirements—it is one of the ways they can reshape priorities and programs. But for music programs large enough and of high enough quality to have full-time faculty covering most, if not all, studio areas, the loss of the one studio faculty line for a particular instrument (e.g., the one trombone or the one viola faculty position) undermines the quality of the whole organization because each studio feeds into the overarching ensemble superstructure of a serious music program.

I’ve also been involved in campus-wide budget development and campus-wide program review, which included conversations about resource reallocation. The reality is that for many smaller colleges and universities today, budgets remain very tight, and music and arts programs take on the appearance of “low hanging fruit.”

Here’s the catch: I am not going to make the case to save a music program on the merits of the arts generally or of music specifically or of student well-roundedness in the abstract. Arguing from the “inherent value” of the arts or the quality of your specific program is pointless in this situation. If your president or provost believed in the inherent value of the arts (not to mention the value of a well-rounded, liberal arts education), you would be having a different conversation! They would be looking for other cost saving measures or efficiencies, or they would be hitting the pavement to find more donors committed to the arts in higher education.

My argument takes as its starting point the belief that your only chance of winning this debate is with data that demonstrates that eliminating your music program will not generate the hoped-for savings!

Let’s begin with some basic financial numbers. Assume we are teaching at a mid-sized, private liberal arts university of about 4,500 students. We’ll call it Presbyterian College of the West, and with 4,500 total students, it is not unrealistic that it would have 150 music majors. On a cloudy Monday morning, the chair of the music department let’s her faculty know that PCW’s provost is considering closing down the music program. It is too expensive, and resources are needed elsewhere.

So let’s investigate the potential cost-savings by considering the basic financial data: At most small- and mid-sized colleges and universities, the single largest cost in an academic program

is usually its fixed faculty salary commitments. Assume 150 music majors are being instructed by about 20 full-time music faculty. According to recent national data, for faculty in the arts, the average Associate professor salary at masters-level institutions is $63,438.  ( Assume a 35% add-on for benefits, and for 20 music faculty, PCW is spending around $1,712,826–a tidy sum of money that could be saved if PCW’s provost carries through with his plan to close down the music program and eliminate the majority of those music faculty lines.

Furthermore, for the sake of the argument, and to be as “generous” as possible in terms of assumed savings, let’s also factor in staff costs. There are probably 6 full-time staff working with 20 music faculty and 150 music majors faculty (assuming a 1:25 ratio between music majors and music staff). If the average staff salary is $48,000 and total compensation with benefits is about $64,800, then PCW is spending $388,800 on staff in the music program. Lastly, we’ll assume that the rest of the music unit budget runs to about $250,000 per year and covers remaining adjunct salaries, equipment repair and purchase, and production costs. The total expenses for the music program would thus run to about $2,351,626 per year.

At the same time, the average annual tuition at four-year, private colleges is currently about $32,405. Average room and board adds about $11,516 to the annual bill (see If most music majors at PCW are getting about a 50% tuition discount (which is not unrealistic today, especially at private colleges), and if only half of the music majors are living on campus, then PCW would be collecting about $3,294,075 from 150 music majors. Now do the math: for a savings of $2,351,626 in music faculty, staff, and other costs, PCW risks a net loss of tuition and room revenue totaling $942,449.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Why assume all that tuition and room and board revenue will be lost to PCW just because it shuts down its music program?”

The answer is simple, though it may be hard for some senior administrators to accept: Music majors—at least in my experience at four different higher education institutions—choose to become music majors and THEN select and apply to target colleges with the studio faculty, ensembles, and music degree programs that they wish to pursue. Most do not choose a college or university and then enroll there, regardless of whether or not there is a (quality) music program.

In other words, music is not a “landing” program; music is not a major that students stumble into once they arrive on a campus with which they have fallen in love. This certainly does not happen on campuses with serious music programs that require auditions of its prospective students.

Music is a “destination” program.

So if PCW closes down its music program, its potential music majors won’t suddenly decide to come to PCW anyway but become nursing majors or psychology majors instead. No, those young musicians will decide to go to one of PCW’s regional competitors.

Furthermore, many of the current music major are going to expect that PCW “teach out” the music major until most—if not all— currently matriculated music majors are finished. (PCW’s state may even require such a “teach out” period.) Depending on PCW’s president’s tolerance for lawsuits, threatened or actual, the teach out might take four or five years. That length of time minimizes whatever savings might come from closing down the music program and delays when those savings actually hit the university’s financial bottom line.

Five years is a long time – long enough to move through a national or global business cycle, with all of its impact on demands for certain types of majors, and long enough for a college presidency to run its course.

OK, so if the reality of the financial data does not scrap the plan to close PCW’s music program, how about football?


Yes, football.

If PCW’s president is trying to reallocate money from music and the arts or “low performing programs” to fund other programs that could “raise the profile of the university,” then athletics is certainly on her mind.

But if the music program is eliminated, there will be no marching band. And if a marching band already exists to support an existing football program, what will the booster organization think (and do) when the marching band program begins to erode and the football experience is diminished?

You cannot sustain a substantive marching program without a core of strong players from the music major.

So far in our scenario, cutting the music faculty and program has resulted in a net tuition loss because music majors (potential and current) will begin to go elsewhere. And the boosters are upset by the loss of their beloved marching band program. But here’s the next major problem: What will PCW’s administration do with that empty music building?

PCW’s provost is not going to just start having biology or chemistry labs in an un-renovated music building that—let’s be honest—is likely to be old and outdated if the music program has been struggling! Science laboratory buildings today require modern and sophisticated ventilation systems and ample electrical systems to power expensive equipment, things that will probably be missing from PCW’s music building built in ca. 1965.

And your music building classrooms are not going to suddenly host an overflow of humanities classes that do not need a lot of specialized equipment. If music is struggling on PCW’s campus, chances are the humanities are in much worse shape in terms of numbers of majors in those programs.

And PCW’s music building is most certainly not going to become a dormitory. Colleges and universities do not win today’s “amenities cold war” with renovated dormitory spaces! No freshman will want to live in a refurbished music practice room on an interior hallway with no windows!

So not only will the music building require massive amounts of investment to make it useful for something other than music, PCW’s president and provost will have…. tons of unused pianos to unload! In other words, there will be even more assets that have now become useless.

Cutting the music program ultimately saves very little because tuition revenue will typically outpace faculty and other instructional costs until the ratio of full-time music faculty to music majors (at a private college or university) reaches about 1:5. The exact ratio depends, of course, on a particular institution’s tuition rate and its “discount rate,” that is, the amount “returned” to students in the form of scholarships. PCW’s music major enrollment would have to drop to about 107 students before tuition revenue and unit costs (including faculty and staff salaries) balanced out.

It would be far better for PCW to make a renewed financial commitment to its music program in an effort to attract more tuition-paying students to use the facilities and equipment in which the institution has already invested. Granted, to get ahead financially, the music department would have to hold the line as best as possible on additional instructional costs. But as a moderately sized college, PCW’s budget would benefit from even as few as five or six more music majors.

In closing, here are a few more questions that music department chairs or concerned faculty members should be able to answer at a moment’s notice if and when talk begins about cutting into or eliminating the music program:

How many students matriculate into the music major, then drop the major but stay at the college?

How many students audition, are not accepted into the major, but still come to the college to participate in music ensembles?

What is the exact percentage of students overall who participate in music ensembles each year?

The answers to these questions may provide further evidence of how the quality of the musical life at your institution draws students to and keeps them coming to your college or university.

Stan Pelkey

May 2016


What I’ve Been Watching: Star Trek!

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary, Star Trek!

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for a long time — not quite 50 years (I’m not yet 45 myself), but since the late 1970s, when the original series was being shown in syndication (probably on Saturday evenings). I also have a few memories of watching episodes of the animated series on Saturday mornings. I knew enough about Star Trek as a small boy that I played it with neighborhood friends, and I went to see the first movie, the infamous “Motion Picture,” with my DadStanPelkey@1977
(This is me, Stan, in kindergarten, in the Fall of 1977. This is about the age that I probably saw my first episodes of Star Trek.)

As a child of the 1980s, Star Trek was for me really the cinematic series of the original crew, plus the Next Generation television series, which first aired when I was a sophomore in high school. Both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and especially Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home  were powerful movie-going experiences for me as a pre-teen and teen, respectively. Rosenman’s outstanding score for Star Trek IV remains among my all-time favorites. I also became a committed fan of the Next Generation. I can remember wondering as the season 3 finale’s cliff hanger unfolded whether or not I’d even be able to watch the season four premiere / resolution at college that fall. This was before cable TV was readily available in many college dormitory rooms! I was grateful that several of my new friends at college were also Next Generation fans, and even Heidi ended up watching a number of the later seasons with me.


(This is me in 1989 — late in high school: a serious piano student, and a committed fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as Doctor Who! I had also written my first fantasy / sic-fi novel by the time this picture was taken.)

I wasn’t a huge Deep Space Nine fan, but I loved Voyager. It remains my favorite series in the Star Trek collective. The ensemble cast of the Next Generation was amazing, but I liked the characters on Voyager just a bit more, and I thought some of the pairings among characters (often tense at that) gave Voyager a flavor reminiscent of the original series, with its ongoing tension between Spock and McCoy. I particularly liked the interactions and relationship between Kathryn Janeway and Chakotay (he is among my absolute favorite Star Trek characters); having been a huge fan of Spook, I also deeply appreciated Tuvok and his flawless portrayal by Tim Russ. By the way, can I admit that in my twenties, I had a huge crush on Captain Janeway / Kate Mulgrew? The “Chaotica” episodes were funny, though not my most favorite, but when Mulgrew portrays Janeway pretending to be Arachnia, the Bride of Chaotica, I am in movie-watching heaven!

And yes, I even liked Star Trek: Enterprise and was disappointed when it was canceled. True, some of the continuity issues bothered me a bit — I tend to be obsessed with continuity issues (and how, you might ask, can I be a Doctor Who fan given that admission?). But I enjoyed seeing into the pre-history of the Federation and, like the crew of Voyager, having heroes facing significant challenges far from the technological and political resources of a powerful space faring empire. But what do I know? I loved The Phantom Menace, too!

There are many reasons to like Star Trek. It taps into important tropes and topics within the science fiction traditions. Its endless optimism is refreshing, even for a fan, like me, of darker dramatic television (e.g., Dexter, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot). Next Generation achieves a balance of plot, character, and reasonably sophisticated production values that was really revolutionary for television science fiction at the time. Doctor Who does much better today, but even 1980s Doctor Who was struggling to achieve more sophistication in terms of its effects. Star Trek made that leap much more convincingly and confidently in the 1980s. But I think what Star Trek has done admirably is to build dozens of characters over hundreds of episodes who are reasonably complex and keep rewarding our sympathy, our interest in them, and our time with them. Doctor Who does that, too, but its companions tend to stay on the series for less than half the time of most Star Trek ensemble members, and the trend since Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor has been for the principal actor to also shift in less time that the average run of a Star Trek television series.

My personal favorite Star Trek characters:

Original series: Spock

Next Generation: Data

Voyager: Janeway and Chakotay

Enterprise: Trip

My personal favorite Star Trek episodes:

Original series: A Taste of Armageddon (1967); The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)

Next Generation: Yesterday’s Enterprise (1990); Cause and Effect (1992); Thine Own Self (1994)

Voyager: Unity (1997); Think Tank (1999); Endgame (2001)

Enterprise: Carbon Creek (2002); North Star (2003)

Perhaps my most favorite Star Trek episode of them all: Thine Own Self (1994) — and certainly the best and most nuanced story centering around Data. He ends up being so human without his annoying habit of trying TO BE human!

My favorite Star Trek movies (in order):

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Star Trek Generations (1994)

Stan Pelkey

September 8, 2016

Watership Down: Literature and Leadership

Literature and Leadership: Watership Down

 Stan Pelkey    

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.” (Bigwig to General Woundwort)

“The Sky Suspended,” Watership Down (First Avon Edition, 1975; p. 451)

It’s not difficult to find reflections on leaders and leadership. Northouse (2010) notes, “Bookstore shelves are filled with popular books about leaders and advice on how to be a leader” (p. 1). An extensive body of social science research on leadership also exists. And we could cast our net even more widely and consider how Western literature has reflected—explicitly or implicitly—upon human motivation, behavior, and leadership for millennia. Our collective obsession with heroes and heroic stories, evident in our mass media culture for over a century, as well as in traditional historical narratives, points to wide-spread fascination in Western society with social organization, leadership, and the exercise of power in its various forms, including referent, expert, legitimate, reward-based, and coercive power.

This is my second blog on leadership through the lens of some of the literature and media that I most love. This series of posts grows in part out of my personal vision of the humanities as a repository of collective memories and wisdom, an ongoing conversation about both abstract values and highly practical ways to think about living well and being just. This blog focuses on Hazel, the principal character in the novel Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams. I first read Watership Down when I was in sixth grade; it has remained one of my favorite books ever since. About five years ago, my daughter read Watership Down for English class, which gave us the chance to discuss the book and motivated me to re-read it.

Originally, the story of the rabbit Hazel and his companions struck me as an allegory about various forms of social organization and their influences on the values and characters of individuals. I still believe that is a meaningful way to understand the book, but during my more recent readings, I have come to view Watership Down as a brilliant portrait of highly effective and virtuous leadership. Indeed, Adamsʼs placement of quotations from European literature and philosophy at the head of each of his novel’s chapters invites consideration of the book as much more than a story about rabbits.

Hazelʼs journey is an archetypal representation of the growth from emergent to recognized and transformational leader. He begins life as an unimportant member of his warren, where legitimate or institutional power was exercised with some coercion. As he tells his brother, the mystic Fiver, “Iʼm sick and tired of it…. ʻThese are my claws, so this is my cowslip.ʼ ʻThese are my teeth, so this is my burrow.ʼ” (Adams, p. 14) Although we witness far worse forms of coercive power before the end of the novel, the point is well taken: social organizations from the very small to the very large rely heavily on rewards and punishments; in doing so, they alienate many, especially “out-group” members (in this case, smaller animals). Interestingly, despite being introduced as an outsider or “outskirter,” Hazel is also marked by Adams as different from most yearlings with words such as “shrewd” and “buoyant” from the moment he is introduced. (Adams, p. 12)

Almost immediately after their simple conversation about coercion, Fiver has a vision of the impending destruction of their warren; this unexpectedly thrusts Hazel into the first of a long series of decision-making moments around which the book’s plot takes shape. He rises to the challenge each time and steadily establishes himself as the undisputed leader of his band of breakaway rabbits.

In the very first night of flight from their home, Hazel begins to establish himself as the leader of the breakaway rabbits. First, however, he has to accept that he has talents and value, especially in the face of the arrival of the larger rabbit, Bigwig. Next, Hazel has to take the risk of exercising authority publicly for the first time in his life. He does so by ordering a group of rabbits sent to bring them back to the warren to go or be killed. Immediately after, he —and he alone—makes the decision that the group of rabbits with him must stop waiting for more (potential) mutineers and must move out. Then, during the night’s journey through a “desolate, grassless woodland,” with terrifying night-time animals all around (Adams, p. 34), Hazel takes physical risks himself in order to guide and ultimately protect the group—in short, he leads from the front. He does so again the next morning, scouting ahead on his own to find a safe place for the group to rest, then getting them safely across a large field the next night. By that point, other rabbits openly acknowledge Hazel as their leader.

Leading from the front is one of Hazel’s most significant leadership qualities. Over the course of Watership Down, he demonstrates his other. Hazel repeatedly rejects brute force and coercion as the basis of social organization and cohesion. Instead, he reveals a knack for sizing up and valuing the individual qualities and skills of the other rabbits in the coalition as it continues to expand around him. Hazel then harnesses the abilities of those best suited to solve particular problems at particular moments rather than relying on the sharpest claws or mightiest teeth. The result of this leadership strategy for the other rabbits is “buy in” to the larger vision and process charted by the coalition; for the coalition as a whole, the benefit is that skills and abilities are not lost from the group simply because they come packaged in smaller, weaker, or less popular individuals.

First and foremost, Hazel accepts the gift (and truth) of his brother’s visions. He also welcomes other smaller, more vulnerable, or less talented rabbits, recognizing that in launching out on a risky new venture, one cannot always pick and choose one’s allies. (Adams, p. 26) How many could-be-ventures – personal, cultural, business – never get off the ground because a potential leader becomes trapped into waiting for never-to-arrive ideal moments and never-to-arrive perfect participants?

Two of my favorite scenes in the early part of the book exemplify Hazel’s ability to draw upon the talents of those around him, for the good of the whole. On the first night of their journey while in the woods, Hazel realizes that the group must rest, but he also knows that they are exposed and that without something to distract them, some of the rabbits might bolt from fear. His solution is to ask Dandelion, the master storyteller in the group, to entertain them. To his credit, Dandelion realizes why Hazel makes this request and is able to work through his own fear to settle down and tell a story. As leader, Hazel catalyzes the mutual care that can occur by turning to those with skills for the moment rather than using force to push through his own agenda (e.g., moving forward). Similarly, the next day, Hazel has to put his trust in Blackberry, “the cleverest rabbit among them,” to come up with a plan to get everyone, including the small rabbits, safely across a river. (Adams, p. 45) Hazel comes to realize from this that he can regularly lean on Blackberry’s uncanny technical understanding.

What is extraordinary in terms of the overarching narrative is that these early scenes repeat themselves at the end of the book, but on much grander scales. Hazel learns from the early input and ideas of his fellow travelers and is then able to marshal their skills in even more complex ways when it matters even more. In essence, under Hazel’s guidance, the coalition becomes a learning organization.

By the end of Watership Down, Hazel is the universally respected and undisputed leader of his people, having guided the community as it created a shared vision, a common purpose, and a mutually edifying social structure. Thus it comes as no surprise when at a crucial moment, the most physically powerful rabbit in the new warren on Watership Down, Bigwig, once Hazelʼs principal rival, is willing to sacrifice himself to carry out Hazelʼs wishes, for the good of the community.

This is Hazel’s greatest victory – though not necessarily in the way you might think. It is not simply that Hazel wins out or wins over Bigwig; rather, the victory is that in having done so, he does not reject Bigwig. From early in the novel, Hazel actually learns to appreciate even Bigwig’s gifts – and not just his superior strength. Rather than rejecting him first as a potential rival and then as a vanquished one, Hazel draws Bigwig into the center of his “executive team.” Hazel the leader can then utilize Bigwig’s talents, but this decision also transforms Hazel: he comes to understand that there is a place for Bigwig’s gifts within the larger social structure that Hazel is shaping in opposition to the more coercive systems he has witnessed. By rejecting the destructive or continually bitter rivalry that could have been all too natural between them, and by coupling themselves into a tight friendship and partnership, Hazel and Bigwig achieve more together than they could ever have achieved on their own. That is the greatest victory for Hazel, as well as for Bigwig: self-mastery where it matters absolutely the most, and openness to self-transformation.

In the end, all leaders will run up against situations, obstacles, or people that they cannot win over or “master.” Given that reality, one could argue that self-mastery and openness to self-transformation are ultimately the most important character traits of leaders. There’s no guarantee that modeling such behavior or traits will inspire others toward their own self-mastery and self-transformation. But one can keep growing and continue to offer oneself to others for the good of the community.

Stan Pelkey

August 25, 2016 (Tallahassee)