Special announcement: an online conference devoted entirely to educational songs!

May 1, 2017

Here is something I’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while:

VOICES: Virtual Ongoing Interdisciplinary Conferences on Educating with Song

I’ve made a few quick comments about this at my other (equally neglected) blog … but I mostly want you to go to the VOICES website and explore that. And ask me questions, if you have them!



TrumpWatch, part 7: this time it’s personal

February 28, 2017

Here’s the latest in my 100-part series on Donald Trump getting under my skin.

As a white cis-gender heterosexual American man, I am rarely if ever the victim of prejudice. Thus, when Trump blames American problems on, say, immigrants, my objections are more intellectual than visceral. I don’t personally experience queasiness, sadness, rage, or fear in the way that an immigrant (or a child of immigrants, or a dark-skinned native who might be mistaken for an immigrant) might.

There’s one partial exception, though: the President’s recent comment (on Twitter, since repeated at CPAC) that the news media are “the enemy of the American people!”

When my ten-year-old son asked me about this, I found myself choking up. “My dad spent twenty years of his life working for a newspaper,” I stammered. “He did his best to gather good information and explain it clearly. What’s so horrible about that?!?” My thoughts turned to my dad’s sister, a longtime copy editor at BusinessWeek … to their great uncle (?) Robert J. Bender, who covered the White House for the United Press Bureau around the time of Woodrow Wilson … to my own forays into journalism. A few tears fell. My son patted my leg sympathetically.

At that moment, there was no room in my head for cerebral ideas about Trump’s rhetorical strategies or how they might relate to his policy goals. All I could think was: the President of the United States has insulted my family and our earnest pursuit of knowledge. That’s not really what he did, of course, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

The moment passed fairly quickly for me. Before long I resumed my status as a white cis-gender heterosexual American man shaking his head at Trump with detached bemusement. But my heart goes out to the truly vulnerable targets of Trump’s rants, who may not be able to move on so easily.


Slouching toward activism, step #2

February 17, 2017

Dear Representative Jayapal and Senators Cantwell and Murray:

Thank you for accepting our previous letter, which concerned the confirmation hearings of Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Scott Pruitt. We appreciate your responses. It is regrettable that voting on DeVos and Pruitt basically broke along party lines, and that Carson is likely to be confirmed in a similar manner.

Given the deep partisan divide, we wonder whether the issue of Donald Trump’s tax returns can be addressed in a way that does not simply pit Democrats against Republicans (especially since that is currently a losing battle for Democrats).

As you know, in all presidential elections since the 1970s, candidates of both parties have voluntarily shared their tax returns. Donald Trump’s choice not to follow this precedent raises important questions about his potential conflicts of interest, e.g., in interacting with foreign countries such as Russia. However, it seems clear that Trump will not release his tax returns unless forced by law to do so. It also seems clear that Rep. Bill Pascrell’s recent amendment to mandate the release of Trump’s returns, while admirable in our eyes, has hit a dead end in the House Ways and Means Committee.

We wonder whether Pascrell’s proposal was rejected by every Republican member of the Ways and Means Committee in part because it was specific to Trump. Perhaps there is hope for a more general, less partisan-sounding version of this idea, requiring all sitting presidents and future presidential candidates to release their tax returns? Perhaps such a bill could (accurately) be marketed as a general effort to improve transparency in government, rather than as a partisan attack on Trump, and thus could win some support from independent-thinking Republicans.

We are unsure how realistic this scenario might be, but we wanted to encourage you to devote any available resources to this kind of common-sense, nonpartisan solution to the tax return debacle.

Gregory J. Crowther & Leila R. Zelnick
[street address redacted]
Seattle WA 98103


If Trump were my student…

February 7, 2017

I feel ridiculous for continuing to write about Donald Trump on this blog. It’s not meant to be a political blog, and I’m not an especially political person. What I am, professionally, is an educator.  So let’s talk about what (if anything) is appropriate for educators to say publicly about Donald Trump.

My general stance — which not everyone will agree with — is that we should address Trump essentially as if he were one of our students. We should vigorously oppose any violations of our core principles, but, in doing so, we should exhibit the calmness and fairness that our students sometimes lack.

I’m thinking, for example, about the difference between saying (1) “Little Donnie’s actions on the playground last Tuesday constitute bullying because…” and saying (2) “Little Donnie is a bully!”  Version 1 — the “safe” version — simply identifies a specific instance of bullying and calls it out as unacceptable.  Version 2 is justifiable, I claim, only if one has overwhelming evidence that bullying is a fundamental, recurring theme of Little Donnie’s behavior and if one is prepared to present that evidence in a comprehensive, impartial manner.  Otherwise, Version 2 seems a lot like name-calling, which itself is a form of bullying.

Some people will find this distinction uninteresting, or will find my perspective too deferential. “Trump doesn’t respect other people, so why should I respect him?” they may ask.

My response would be that, as educators, we should not be aping our students’ questionable behaviors; rather, we should be striving to represent the highest ideals of our profession.  We must oppose sexism, racism, and all forms of hatred, but we must also be careful not to prematurely label people as worthless or irredeemable.

I am saying all of this partly to encourage others to practice greater civility in political discussions, but partly to remind myself not to give in to my own darker instincts.

Consider, for example, the following tweet:

Any negative polls are fake news, just like CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.

My initial reaction to this was, uh, extremely unprofessional.  But what IS the behavior that I want to model for my students, their parents, and my colleagues?  Let me try again.

In academia, Mr. Trump, we insist that our students support their claims with carefully sourced, curated evidence. In contrast, in this tweet, you are rejecting the principle of evidence-based discourse.  You are not simply dismissing a particular poll as flawed (which it could be); you are saying that ANY poll that could ever exist that disagrees with you is wrong, period. You are saying, trust me and me alone; no rival source need be considered.

Mr. Trump, this is unacceptable hubris. Such unsubstantiated bluster would never earn my students a passing grade; likewise, it will never earn you any credit with me.   It’s time to start doing your homework.



Introducing Samuel John Zelnick-Crowther

February 4, 2017


My son Phil, 10, now has a younger brother. Leila gave birth to Sam on January 31st.

Me being me, I have been processing this event, in part, by writing a letter (below) and a lullaby.

* * * * * *

Dear Sam,

The circumstances surrounding your birth were both unique and universal.

While your mother was deep in the throes of labor, she listened to music played on the mbira, a “thumb piano” of metal keys that was developed in Africa thousands of years ago.  In particular, she listened repeatedly to a song called “Tadzungaira” (“We Are Suffering”) as performed by the Zimbabwean mbira master Forward Kwenda.  

Mbira songs like this one have a relatively short “theme” of what might be considered 8 to 16 measures of Western music.  But those 8 to 16 measures are repeated over and over and over, with a seemingly infinite number of improvised variations.  A single song may last 30 minutes or more.

Mbiras often defy time in another sense, too.  Traditionally, they are played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe to summon the spirits of ancestors.  In other words, they connect the people of today with those of the past.

Here in the United States, mbiras are virtually unknown.  If the doctors and nurses who attended your birth had given the matter any thought, they might have been incredulous that a white woman raised in Oklahoma and living in Seattle would, in the depths of her despair, draw strength and tranquility from the plucking of an African instrument that they had never heard of.

Yet she did.  She was hurting profoundly, but she knew the stakes and soldiered on, steady and insistent, like an mbira melody that would not be stopped.

As I listened to your mother’s grunts and groans intermingled with Forward Kwenda’s ceaseless variations on “Tadzungaira,” I felt a rare solidarity with humankind.  While your mother’s struggle to deliver you was specific to her situation — her life history, her anatomy, her hospital — it was also a struggle as old and as familiar as the human race itself.  African women were giving birth long, long before the first mbira was a gleam in its maker’s eye.

Sam, you are here today as a unique descendant of your unique mother.  There has never been another person quite like you, and there never will be.  But you are also here as someone connected to those who have gone before you, those who are with you now, and those who will follow.  

Sam, I will strive to love you both for what you share with these others and for what makes you different.  You, in turn, should strive to love others this fully.  At times this will be hard — perhaps as hard as childbirth itself, and just as important.   Please do your best.



* * * * * *


* * * * * *

Update, Feb. 16th: Here is Leila’s birth-day narrative.


Slouching towards activism

January 31, 2017

My wife and I, not political activists by nature or habit, are trying to figure out how we can do our part to shape the future of the United States for the benefit of our literal and figurative sons and daughters. As a small step in that direction, we sent the following email today.


Dear Representative Jayapal and Senators Cantwell and Murray:

We write to you to express our concern about Donald Trump’s nomination of Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Scott Pruitt to the respective cabinet-level positions of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Education, and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As citizens with liberal political views, we share many of your broad concerns about the new administration. It is hard to know which battles to fight, and which to concede. The three nominees above, however, seem especially worthy of scrutiny for the following two reasons.

First, all three have demonstrated alarming tendencies to dismiss research data from rigorous studies. Dr. Carson, while an accomplished physician, does not fully embrace Darwinian evolution. Ms. DeVos appears uninterested in careful studies of charter schools that question the efficacy of the “Michigan model” that she favors. Mr. Pruitt has expressed hostility toward mainstream climate science. As professional scientists, we find this behavior deeply concerning.

Second, each of these nominees, in the words of the Washington Post, “have key philosophical differences with the missions of the agencies they have been tapped to run.” As the Post explains, “Pruitt has spent much of his energy as attorney general fighting the very agency he is being nominated to lead… Ben Carson, named to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has expressed a deep aversion to the social safety net programs and fair housing initiatives that have been central to that agency’s activities. Betsy DeVos, named education secretary, has a passion for private school vouchers that critics say undercut the public school systems at the core of the government’s mission.”

In light of these serious concerns, we urge you to oppose the confirmation of these three individuals.

Gregory J. Crowther, Ph.D.
Leila R. Zelnick, Ph.D.
[street address redacted]
Seattle WA 98103


Overthinking the checkout chit-chat

January 15, 2017

The scene: I am buying groceries from Ryan [not the clerk’s actual name] at Albertsons [not the store’s actual name].

Ryan: Blackberries, eh?

Me [aloud]: Yup.

Ryan [struggling to scan the package]: This UPC code is way too small. I’d like to strangle whoever thought this was a good idea.

Me [internally]: I know you’re kidding, but jeez! Even facetious talk of violence makes me kind of queasy these days. Are you aware that a lot of marginalized people feel as though they’re walking around with bull’s-eyes on their backs? On the other hand, you didn’t say that you would actually strangle somebody, just that you felt like doing so. Maybe it’s healthy for you to acknowledge your frustration without intending to act upon it?

Ryan: I could commit murder, but do it with style.

Me [internally]: What? Can we please talk about something else? Or about nothing? Somehow I must register disapproval, however mildly…

Me [aloud]: You know, Ryan, I don’t think that’s possible.

Ryan: That’s true. I’m not British.

Me [aloud]: [polite chuckle]

Ryan: The French could never pull it off. They’d have to make it into a big drama.

Me [internally]: Oh, great, more stereotypes. Yes, let’s pick on the French. Or maybe you’re COMPLIMENTING the French on their inability to kill casually — they know that life is precious — and slamming the British for making murder look cool? What is your heritage, anyway? Is it OK to make fun of one’s own tribe?

Me [aloud]: Did you already scan my card? I can’t remember.

Me [internally]: All this talk of homicide has been slightly distracting, you see…

Ryan: I can’t remember either. I’ll scan it again just in case. Don’t worry, I’ll be normal once I get my second cup of coffee. Have a great day!

Me [aloud]: You too!

Me [internally]: Try not to strangle anyone.

Where it all began
Here’s where it all began.


Marshall & Warren: cinematic science

January 13, 2017

Portrayals of science and scientists on television and in movies are often hilariously fanciful. In the generally wonderful BBC/PBS series “Sherlock,” for example, the title character sees the chemical structures of individual molecules through an ordinary light microscope. I guess peering into a ‘scope makes for more compelling and succinct visuals than, say, running samples through an HPLC and laboriously comparing them to standards. (“It’s UNCANNY, Watson! The retention time in THIS solvent is 9.72 minutes — HIGHLY suggestive of a halogen-substituted phenol!”)

Every so often, though, you come across a real-life science story that has an undeniably cinematic arc. Such is the tale of Australian physicians Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for discovering the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and showing that it causes most cases of gastritis and peptic ulcers.

As recounted by Marshall (2001), his work with Warren drew upon four previously disparate strands of biomedical ideas and evidence. These strands, as of the late 1970s, were as follows. (1) Spiral-shaped bacteria had occasionally been found in the stomachs of various mammals, including humans. But these bacteria were not widely suspected of causing any particular disease. (2) Gastritis –- inflammation of the stomach -– was a well-known problem generally attributed to stress, which supposedly induced secretion of excessive acid into the stomach. But some patients developed gastritis despite an impaired ability to secrete acid. (3) An enzyme called urease, which breaks urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia, had been found in the stomach; some evidence suggested that it had been produced by bacteria. But urease’s importance, if any, was unclear. (4) Formulations containing bismuth, a heavy metal, had been used to successfully treat nonspecific gastrointestinal problems. But the mechanism of action and the importance of the bismuth itself were not clear either.

In pivotal studies conducted mostly in the early 1980s, Marshall and Warren synthesized these four strands into a coherent theory, as follows. Gastritis was not caused by acid secretion problems per se but by the spiral bacterium, H. pylori, which burrows into the mucus lining the stomach and causes inflammation. While most bacteria cannot survive the low pH of the stomach, H. pylori produces and secretes urease, which helps it weather the acidic environment by producing ammonia, which serves as a buffer. Finally, bismuth can cure gastric problems by serving as an antibiotic, killing H. pylori and ending the corresponding inflammation.

This was an exciting story in and of itself, but there was more. Not only does H. pylori cause the acute condition of gastritis, it turns out to be the main culprit in the chronic conditions of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Antibiotics were found to cure ulcers as well as gastritis (Marshall et al., 1988), and to drastically reduce the incidence of stomach cancer.

Marshall and Warren were initially ridiculed and dismissed. One can debate the extent to which this skepticism on the part of the scientific community was appropriate, because the preliminary evidence produced by Marshall and Warren was clear, but not overwhelming. A perfect example of this is the study in which Marshall et al. (1985) fulfilled Koch’s four postulates for identifying the causative agent of an infectious disease. Meeting the postulates is strong evidence that a disease’s cause has been found (Evans, 1976), so Marshall et al.’s (1985) study could be considered strong, yet — spoiler alert! — it was conducted on only one subject, Marshall himself, who gave himself gastritis by drinking a broth of H. pylori taken from another patient. Marshall believed this necessary because he had not been able to get H. pylori to cause disease in a healthy animal (Marshall & Adams, 2008), the usual way of fulfilling Koch’s third postulate. The study was not published in an elite journal but rather The Medical Journal of Australia, whose middling reputation may have also limited awareness and acceptance of the conclusions. Moreover, the idea that bacteria could cause disease in the stomach was considered implausible by many physicians, who assumed that the stomach’s high acidity kills essentially all microbes (Weintraub, 2010).

Another major, slightly comical step forward came during Marshall and Warren’s first big clinical study, in which they checked 100 gastritis patients for the possible presence of H. pylori in their stomachs (Marshall & Warren, 1984). They had no luck with the first 34 patients, but — spoiler alert! — sample #35 came back positive after incubating over a long holiday weekend, which gave the slow-growing H. pylori extra time to reveal itself. (It was actually during Easter. How perfect is that? On the third day, the bacteria appeared again. They were alive after all! Alive, I say!) After this, all samples were incubated for four days rather than two, and most were found to contain H. pylori.

It really is a great story. Why hasn’t it been turned into a movie?


Evans, A. S. (1976). Causation and disease: the Henle-Koch postulates revisited. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 49(2), 175-195.

Marshall, B. J. (2001). One hundred years of discovery and rediscovery of Helicobacter pylori and its association with peptic ulcer disease. In H. L. T. Mobley, G. L. Mendz, & S. L. Hazell (Eds.), Helicobacter pylori: Physiology and Genetics. Washington (DC): ASM Press.

Marshall, B., & Adams, P. C. (2008). Helicobacter pylori: A Nobel pursuit? Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology, 22(11), 895.

Marshall, B. J., Armstrong, J. A., McGechie, D. B., & Glancy, R. J. (1985). Attempt to fulfil Koch’s postulates for pyloric Campylobacter. The Medical Journal of Australia, 142(8), 436-439.

Marshall, B. J., & Warren, J. R. (1984). Unidentified curved bacilli in the stomach of patients with gastritis and peptic ulceration. The Lancet, 323(8390), 1311-1315.

Marshall, B., Warren, J. R., Blincow, E., Phillips, M., Goodwin, C. S., Murray, R., … & Sanderson, C. (1988). Prospective double-blind trial of duodenal ulcer relapse after eradication of Campylobacter pylori. The Lancet, 332(8626), 1437-1442.

Weintraub, P. (2010). The Dr. who drank infectious broth, gave himself an ulcer, and solved a medical mystery. Discover Magazine, March 2010.


Trump is ever so slightly right about media bias, part 2: Streep-gate

January 10, 2017

[Click here for Part 1.]

Everyone has been talking about Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes acceptance speech in which she criticized Donald Trump for mocking a reporter’s disability. Predictably enough, Trump fan are incensed. But did Trump really make fun of Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis? The truth, according to me, is that we’ll never know for sure.

Everyone who cares about this issue has seen the footage of Trump flailing around as he momentarily pretends to be Kovaleski. The key question is, was he specifically referencing Kovaleski’s physical limitations, or just impersonating a generic flustered, incompetent person?

The first interpretation is definitely plausible. But so is the second one, in light of two key points made by pro-Trump sites such as Catholics4Trump.com. First, Trump’s vaguely epileptic flailing bears little resemblance to Kovaleski’s limited movements. Second, Trump has made similar flailing motions when mocking other (non-disabled) people (a general; Ted Cruz; himself, when forced to go on vacation; a bank president; Donna Brazile).

(The article I’m linking to is NOT a good article overall. It has many problems. But we’re not going to get into those. Let’s focus solely on the disability issue.)

I’ve read the Washington Post’s defense of Streep, but the evidence is not nearly as strong as the Post claims. In particular, the Post’s use of the still frame, showing that Trump’s arm and wrist were bent like Kovaleski’s for at least a fraction of a second, is a cheap trick, as pointed out by Catholics4Trump.com. If Trump had frozen himself into a distinctly Kovaleski-like pose, that would indeed be damning, but the fact that his arm resembled Kovaleski’s at one moment in time is NOT a smoking gun. Not even close.

If Meryl Streep — whom I generally admire as an actress and as a person — wanted to make a compelling statement about Donald Trump’s treatment of marginalized people, she should have chosen a better, more clear-cut example. The fact that Trump seems (to liberals like me) like the kind of guy who might mock a disability does not mean that he actually did.

We need to pick our battles, people. This should not be one of them.

[UPDATE: Via Facebook, my friend David Crossman, who disagrees with me, cites another Washington Post fact-checker article that exposes Trump’s dishonesty in talking about Kovalesky. I agree with many aspects of that article, though not its specific conclusions on the disability issue.]

What exactly does this prove? Image taken from Catholics4Trump.com.


2016, agGREGated: Trump, job apps, pregnancy

January 9, 2017

If you tried to deduce what last year was like for me based on my irregular scattershot posts during the year, you probably wouldn’t do very well. So, for a less cryptic view of my 2016, read on. In brief, there were three main themes.


No surprise here, right? Donald Trump was such an unbelievable character that even I, with my modest interest in politics, felt compelled to read and (eventually) write about him throughout the year, for better or worse.

Among the many, many Trump stories that I saw, my favorite was a post-election piece by Seth Stevenson of Slate.

There was something else. An uncomfortable suspicion taking hold in me. I became convinced we [journalists] weren’t at these [Trump] rallies to observe. We were there to be observed….

Perhaps I’d been naive, but it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us [journalists] in the pen was so they could turn us into props. We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals.

And it worked. The press pack, collectively, looked nothing like the crowds at Trump events—particularly in more rural towns. We’d file into these places with our sleek luggage and our expensive tech gear and our better haircuts. We were far more diverse than the people in the stands. When the crowds lustily booed us, we’d sit there impassive and stone-faced, and this only further served to convince the rallygoers that we were snobby, superior pricks. The pen was an amazingly efficient means of othering us.

Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy! Under President Trump, the other elites will be in cages, too. We’ll lock them up, just like the chant goes. Just like you wanted. You’ll be their captors.

As one of the journalism-valuing, anti-bullying “elites” against whom Trump raged, I struggled mightily to comprehend his candidacy, much less respond to it. But my open letter to my students was a useful contribution to the conversation, I think.


2016 was also a really hard year in terms of job-searching. My tale of one of my near-misses was published on a friend’s academic blog last month.

I felt unstoppable. Fourteen years after finishing my Ph.D., I would finally be settling into a stable position that I really wanted and totally deserved.

And then I got a call from my department chair. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” he began. I hadn’t gotten the job -– either job. I was a well-liked, already-successful internal candidate, and I couldn’t even place in the top two.

Up to now, I’ve been hesitant to air such laments publicly. (I wrote the above post only after a less personal version [eventually revised and posted here] was declined by my friend.) I guess I’ve been worried about being perceived by prospective employers as a whiner or a loser. But it’s time to stop worrying. If you pre-judge me as unworthy simply because I think there’s value in acknowledging and discussing one’s failures, well, that’s your prerogative — and your loss.


On to happier stuff! My wife has blogged about this (here, here, and here); the bottom line is that we’re expecting a baby boy on or around February 5th.

For me, the best part was after the MRI … when the radiology technician showed me some of the images and even a video…. I was astounded to see my favorite little alien moving around in there — it looked like he was having quite the dance party! It put a huge smile on my face the rest of the day to have a mental image of what was going on down below every time my stomach turns and tickles.

2017 should be really, really interesting.

* * * * * *


slide from job talk