Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Department of English Studies and Communication Skills’ Category

Healing Words

A tangible feeling of nervous excitement fills the room. Around 100 of us – students, faculty, administrators, and guests – file one by one into Robert Morris University’s Rogal Chapel.

To “honor the sun,” as we are told, we each do a clockwise lap around the room before taking a seat in one of the chairs that are situated in a circle around the room. In the center, scented smoke wafts from abalone shell as Francis Burnside walks from the front to the back of the chapel, an eagle’s feather in his hand, chanting to himself quietly.

Burnside, a “medicine man” who helped spark the Native American rights movement by occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969 is RMU’s current Rooney International Visiting Scholar. A hataalii, a practitioner of the sacred rites of the people who prefer to call themselves the Dine (pronounced di-NEH), Burnside lives in the Navajo Nation, a territory of 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. His father was one of the U.S. Marine Corps’s famed “code-talkers” during World War II – members of the Navajo people who transmitted telephone and radio messages in their native language during Pacific operations between 1942 and 1945.

Burnside was first approached about coming to RMU by Edward Karshner, an assistant professor of English studies and communications, who studied with the Navajo people and participated in their rituals during a visit to the Navajo Nation in 2008. Today, he invited the RMU campus community to join him so that he could share with us the ethical system of life known as the “Blessing Way.”

Seated in the 12 o’clock position of the circle, Burnside wears brown cowboy boots, black jeans, and a silky red shirt adorned with two vibrant feathers, one on each arm. Around his neck, a Western bolo tie.

The room is quiet. Electric.

Suddenly, the 67-year-old begins to speak, softly.

We have all come here, he says, in our own “walk of life.” Seated as we are, in a circle, we are one giant living cell, with a fire in the center, and each of us is an atom. “You are all sacred,” he says, “magnificent.” It is upon all of us, he adds, to honor and take care of the earth, from which everything comes.

“I don’t teach,” he says, believing that too often what we call teaching is merely forcing our ideas on others. “I share.” It’s our failure to share and live as one people, he says, that divides us as a species. “There are no enemies on this earth,” he says. We are all related. We are related to the trees. We are related to the stones.

Burnside asks us to pass the feather, or “fan” as he calls it, around the room as we share our names and hometowns. “When you mention your name,” he says, “it is a prayer unto itself, because you all have a sacred tongue, a sacred name.”

As the feather makes its way around the room, it amazes me what a diverse group of people we have here at RMU – people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Iowa, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Nevada, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, and Alaska. Others from Germany, Turkey, Russia, and Finland. We are all different, but together we make one continuous circle. One campus.

As I sit and try to absorb the moment, I appreciate what a beautiful message Burnside has brought to us today. It’s one of sharing the earth and all its resources, of relationships and the ties that bind us all, of peace and calmness in quiet meditation, and of the beautiful differences between us.

He is a humble man, Burnside. “I am not the know-it-all,” he says. But I can’t help but feel great admiration for this healer and his quiet yet powerful wisdom. I leave with a feeling of peace and purpose I’ve not known for some time.

For more: Traditional Navajo healer is RMU’s latest Rooney Visiting Scholar

—Valentine J. Brkich

RMU’s Hidden Symbols

Back in 2003, novelist Dan Brown took the publishing world by storm with his highly controversial book, The Da Vinci Code. Just recently, he released his long-awaited follow-up, The Lost Symbol, which centers around the mysteries surrounding the many Masonic symbols found around our nation’s capital and on our national currency.

At the center of this new thriller is the fresco known as “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” which adorns the ceiling of the Capital Dome. Painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), this Raphael-esque fresco covers an area of 4,664 square feet and took eleven months to paint.

In the center of the fresco, Brumidi depicts George Washington rising to the heavens with classical female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Washington is depicted as a godlike figure here, hence the word “apotheosis” in the title, which literally means “the raising of a person to the rank of a god.”

Six other groups of figures are included in the painting symbolizing American ingenuity in war, science, marine, mechanics, agriculture, and commerce.

Ed Karshner, assistant professor of English studies and communications skills at RMU, pointed out that the commerce grouping actually depicts Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, handing a bag of money to our very own Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. “Mercury was the patron god of alchemy, which sought to transform lead (the body/material) into gold (the soul/spirtiual),” he says. “Mercury represented the swift intellect and was associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods. So, the intellect is handing Robert Morris a spiritual reward of transformation (i.e., what was lead is now gold), which is a pretty cool metaphor for a university.”

Each semester, Karshner has students in his Mythology class look for the hidden symbols around campus. “I also like to look at how groups use symbols, icons, and indexes subconsciously,” he says. “It’s a kind of symbol scavenger hunt and a mind puzzle, but it’s also fun and can be illuminating.”

Karshner points out that at RMU we have a ziggurat: a stepped hill with a temple (Rogal Chapel) on top. “You can look at ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica to see examples of these pyramids,” he says.

We also have a dome and spiral in the Nicholson Center, which Karshner says symbolizes the migration or emergence into the mind or the ascending to heaven. “All of these symbols fit into RMU as a university, since they all reference a migration upward to a higher consciousness and a transformation of self.”

–Valentine J. Brkich

Irish eyes

Throughout the history of the United States, those of African origins, particularly those transported to America as part of the international slave trade, have interacted for better or worse with the millions of Irish Americans brought to this country by the forces of famine, revolution, and want.

Oppressed and unschooled, they often fought for the same dead end jobs afforded by the industrial system of the 19th Century. That Henry Louis Gates Jr is related to Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Mass., police force is not all that surprising to those who know the tangled roots of our peoples.

Daniel O’Connell, the great liberator of the Irish poor, hosted Frederick Douglass in the late 1840s as Douglass travelled in Ireland. Both O’Connell and Douglass recognized the somber and horrific effects of slavery and colonialism; and both found in the other traits to admire.

The most famous of all books about the south, “Gone with the Wind”, names the lost plantation Tara, the holiest of the holy places of Ireland. And Scarlett’s surname O’Hara is known throughout the Emerald Isle.

When the Derry civil rights protesters marched against the injustices of Northern Ireland, it was “We shall overcome” that they sang. and Martin Luther King Jr sent his trusted lieutenant Ralph Abernathy to observe the protests of Ulster.

Whether black, brown or white, the forces of economic oppression yield remarkably equal results. The unfortunate incident between a Harvard prof and a fine police officer brings the parties together, and one can hope that the apparent differences of the two protagonists will soon illustrate the common humanity of the two.

–Jim Vincent

Jim Vincent is an associate professor of English studies at Robert Morris University. He is currently traveling in Ireland.

A Bard Wannabe

I’m what you call an amateur poet. By that I mean that, from time to time, when the mood strikes, I pen a really terrible “poem” that nobody will or should ever read. In fact, I’m hoping one day to have an entire collection of unread poetry that I can never share with anyone. Then, when I die, someone will find it, attempt to read it, see that it’s really bad, and then make sure that it’s disposed of properly. Preferably with fire. Call me a dreamer, but it could happen.

Yesterday, thanks to Robert Morris University, I got to attend a wonderful poetry event at the Schenley Park Visitors Center in Oakland. Hosted by Autumn House Press, the event was a celebration of poetry and a release party for Autumn House’s When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women by Andrea Hollander Budy.

The event also featured favorite poem readings by Toi Derricotte, professor of English at the University of Pitt; Marty McGuinn, chairman and CEO of Mellon Financial Corporation; Rick Sebak, producer for WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh; Sally Wiggin, WTAE Channel 4 Action News anchor; and some other guy named Franco Harris, who they tell me played football to some acclaim back in the 1970s.

My wife accompanied me to the reading, making us the only two people out of the hundred or so in attendance unable to recite any poem from memory other than “Roses Are Red…”

One of the more distinguished attendees was RMU’s very own Jay S. Carson, D.A., university professor of English Studies for the Department of English Studies & Communications Skills, and a pretty darn good poet in his own right. His poem, “Jay Bird,” was printed in the April 2005 edition of Paper Street Press in Pittsburgh, and “How I Would Become a Blacksmith” was in the latest edition of Hawaii Review.

It may surprise you, but RMU has a lot of talented poets right here on campus, and you can read many of their works in the university’s very own student literary magazine, Rune, which just released it’s latest issue. If you’re a poet and, unlike me, you’re willing to share your work, Rune accepts poetry, short stories, dramatic writing, and other writings along with photography and art as well. You can e-mail Jay S. Carson for more information.

I have to admit, I felt a little inspired after this event, and it gave me the confidence to share my latest poem. Let me know what you think:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
For a great degree
Come to RMU

Okay…so it’s a work in progress.

–Valentine Brkich

Around the horn

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Highlands High School quarterback Jeff Sinclair is coming to RMU because of our strengths in nursing. That will please the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, which is looking for a few good men. (Ladies welcome too.) Highlands coach Sam Albert says some nice things about us, and we couldn’t more grateful.

Looking elsewhere, RMU women’s basketball standout Monet Johnson finds herself mentioned in this New York Times article, while club hockey coach Jason Evans scores his 100th victory.

Finally, A. J. Grant, head of the Department of English Studies and Communication Skills, wants to make sure we get credit where credit is due. (Link; last item.)

That’s all. Stay warm.