Monday, January 28, 2008

Couple takes the theatre program by storm

By Courtney Westlake

Having offices down the hall from each other is no doubt the closest Missy and Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson have ever worked.

As aspiring performers and then teachers, the couple struggled to remain even in the same city for years before coming to UIS to rebuild the university's theatre program from the ground up. Now, working alongside each other, they are excited about the opportunities at UIS.

Eric and Missy have both been engaged in theatrics since a young age. The couple met while attending the University of Nebraska and then married and had a daughter, Emma.

Several years ago, UIS decided to revamp its theatre program, and Eric took on the job single-handedly. Then, as it started to grow and gain interest in the community, the university hired Missy on, through her own credentials, as a second theatre faculty member.

"I always knew I really liked teaching and always knew I really liked acting and performing, and I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I get to do both," Missy said.

There are several theatre classes available at UIS currently within the Communication department. This spring, Topics in Dramatic Literature will be offered for the first time, with the topic this semester being Women Playwrights. Eventually, the Thibodeaux-Thompsons hope that the theatre program can offer a minor, and further down the road, students will be able to major in theatre.

The couple also directs performances at Studio Theatre. Recent plays include Picnic, Proof, Oedipus the King and Anton in Show Business. And on February 10 and 11, auditions are being held for Tennessee Williams' Period of Adjustment, with callbacks on February 12. Eric is directing the April production, and auditions are open to everyone.

"I love the mix of non-traditional students right alongside the traditional students; it's a nice melting pot," Eric said. "I think our audiences appreciate not having just 19 year-olds playing all the parts, and I think our 19-year-olds appreciate that too, because they can learn a lot working with very experienced people."

The Thibodeax-Thompsons said they have been more than impressed with the outreach from the theatre base in the community and the willingness of community members, UIS staff and faculty to step in, take roles and help out when they can and want to. The focus in the theatre program, though, will remain on the students.

"Through it all we really want students to remain the centerpiece of what we do," Eric said. "And I think we've been able to get more students recently because they're showing up at auditions and in the classrooms. The growth here hasn't skyrocketed, but it has been stair-casing in the right direction."

UIS also hopes to encourage students to pursue other interests in theatre, not only acting and performing but lighting, scenic design, costume design and much more. The backstage work is just as important as on-stage work, if not more, Eric said, and Missy completely agreed.

"One of the things I love so much about theatre, with no disrespect to other art forms, is that this is the only true collaborative art form," Missy said. "I can't do it by myself; I have to have other people that specialize and excel in their expertise. We see the actors and they get all the notoriety and attention, but it really is a very egalitarian process."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Professor shares philosophical concepts within political science

By Courtney Westlake

Dr. Richard Gilman-Opalsky was originally interested in philosophy as a career field and obtained both his bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy.

But it was as he was working to get his Ph.D. that he realized he "wanted to ask questions about politics that were being asked more in political science than in philosophy," he said.

"I wanted to look at actual social movements, look at examples of political action of various kinds, and, within philosophy, that's less common to do," Gilman-Opalsky said. "So I changed my discipline to political science, so I could do the research I wanted to do for my dissertation."

Gilman-Opalsky obtained his Ph.D. in political science from The New School for Social Research and came to UIS in fall 2006. He has found that the priorities of the university and political science program are directly in line with his personal priorities, which include a number one focus on educating students and teaching the topics he is passionate about.

Gilman-Opalsky teaches classes that focus on topics like globalization and the future of democracy, introduction to political philosophy, ideas and ideologies, and democratization and the public sphere. The public sphere is one of Gilman-Opalsky's most central interests, and the course he teaches is built from the research he did while writing a book that is coming out next month called "Unbounded Publics: Transgressive Public Spheres, Zapatismo, and Political Theory," he said.

"Democratization and the Public Sphere is a course that says democracy is not just elections and voting," he said. "It has to do with culture. There are a lot of problems with elections; voting and elections are just one small part of politics. So that course is a semester-long investigation of a more robust notion of democracy."

Gilman-Opalsky said he finds UIS a "remarkable and rare fit" for his specific interests in political philosophy. He defines political philosophy as, very generally, asking political questions to which there aren't clear answers. The field doesn't focus on explaining or analyzing how things are, but "deciding how things should be," he said.

"Within political philosophy, we are concerned with some of the big moral and ethical questions of how things aren't but could be and should be," Gilman-Opalsky said. "What would be the best government? What would be the best society? Why don't we have it? Could we?"

"When you can say this is how things ought to be and then this is how things are, you can observe the distance between the two, and then get to the bottom of what obstacles are in the way of moving from point A to point B," he continued.

Because UIS is located in the state's capital, Gilman-Opalsky said he finds that many students are attracted to what he calls "practical politics" - working for the state government, working for a particular political party, lobbying and the like. So while his students might originally be unsure about looking at the philosophical side of politics, he said he has seen very positive reactions as they study the concepts.

"I think there tends to be a polarizing reaction," Gilman-Opalsky said. "But because we discuss exciting questions, provocative questions and controversial questions, I think students respond very, very well to courses in political philosophy."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Students get involved with UIS

By Courtney Westlake

Students packed through the concourse of the Public Affairs Center's lower level on Wednesday evening to get an idea about what opportunities UIS offers in terms of clubs, organizations and more.

The semi-annual Involvement Expo allows campus clubs, departments and groups to set up booths in the PAC, showcasing their missions and activities to interested students.

"The Involvement Expo is a very exciting event; it's probably one of our most successful events of the year," said Cynthia Thompson, director of the Office of Student Life, which coordinates the Expo. "It's an opportunity for campus departments, student organizations and local businesses to showcase what they've got to the new students. The students get very excited; it really gives them a chance to show off their organizations."

The Involvement Expo takes place twice a year, in the beginning of the fall and the spring semesters, Thompson said.

"Every time during First Week we do this," she said. "Each semester, we have new students, and we want to introduce them to Student Life and student activities."

Ashleen Woods, co-president of the Vegetarian Club at UIS, said the club has become very active in the last couple of years and wanted to showcase itself at the expo.

"The main thing we like to do is provide information for people if they're interested in vegetarianism," she said. "We're always welcoming members; it doesn't matter if you're a vegetarian or not. We welcome everybody, and it's just a great way to be part of student activities."

Ana Morales, president of ESCAPE, or Entrepreneurs of Space Concepts and Planet Exploration, said the club is currently working with the Entrepreneurship Club at UIS to give students the opportunity to gain business experience and form possible entrepreneurship opportunities.

Morales said the club was very interested in having a booth at the expo to share information about ESCAPE. ESCAPE had a game set up at the Involvement Expo to engage passing students and give out prizes, along with information about the club.

"It's a very good way for students to see what's out there," she said. "A lot of people don't know how maneuver through the Web sites. This is a good way to attract students and let them know what we're doing."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

18th Congressional Seat Forum takes place at UIS

By Courtney Westlake

Campus and community members gathered on Tuesday evening to listen to the 18th Congressional Seat Forum, which took place at UIS in the Public Affairs Center. The candidates included Jim McConoughey, John Morris and Aaron Schock. The event was sponsored by UIS and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.
Chris Mooney, professor of political science at UIS, moderated the debate.

The candidates started by introducing themselves and giving opening remarks. They then fielded questions from Mooney on a variety of political topics, including the importance of endorsements, congressional earmarks, social security, the local and national economy and more.
Schock, a Peoria native and current State Representative, said he believes the government's role is not to create jobs but to create an environment that encourages jobs and investments from businesses.

"I believe the best way to do that is to keep marginal tax rates low, to keep tax rates on dividends and investments low," he said. "We have to make sure not only the state of Illinois, but our country remains competitive in a global market."

Morris, a former Peoria City Council member, stressed that he wants to do away with the death tax and that his highest priority is national security.

"There are threats out there," he said. "I think the defense of this country, the watchful eye, the level of intelligence, the training of specialists - this is critical. And when I get to Congress, this is going to be a top priority: national safety and security."

McConoughey, who is the CEO of a Peoria-based business umbrella group and admitted he is not a "professional politician," said the challenge for most local areas is that money is needed to be able to get projects done and correct core infrastructure problems.

"In most marketplaces, as a Congressman, I need to be able to assist the local efforts in being able to restore, replace, replenish and create new jobs in the future. I'll put a director of economic development on the staff in order to aid in new programs," he promised the audience. "It's a multi-faceted, multi-disciplined approach."

All three Republican candidates admitted they agree on many issues, but will have varying priorities if elected. The 18th Congressional primary election will take place on February 5.

Project Vote Smart educates UIS

By Courtney Westlake

Project Vote Smart rolled onto the UIS campus on Tuesday morning, making a stop from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in front of Lincoln Residence Hall to encourage members of the campus community to learn about the project and about making the best possible choices when it comes to voting in elections.

Project Vote Smart, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, has been in existence for about 16 years, but only about 10 percent of the public is aware of it, said Tony Boehm, a project representative. Members of the project are traveling around the country on a bus to raise awareness, currently moving through the Midwest before heading west to California at the end of January.

"We basically try to educate voters on all issues, all candidates, all elected officials," Boehm said. "We feel the more that people are educated, the more they'll know about the issues and not be influenced by the media and candidates' negative campaigns."

The project has a tie to UIS through Dr. Anthony Sisneros, associate professor of public administration at UIS who also serves as an adviser to Project Vote Smart. This was a major factor in the bus having the opportunity to stop on campus, Boehm said.

The Project Vote Smart bus holds a small movie theater that can fit 22 people. Those interested in learning about the project are shown an introductory video and given a tutorial of the Project Vote Smart Web site. There are computers available for students to explore themselves or Project Vote Smart representatives can showcase the site and its features via a projection screen.

Project Vote Smart is also toting along a giant, inflatable ball with the American flag, on which people can sign or write a short message to politicians.

"We're taking it everywhere we go and delivering it to Washington before the election," Boehm said.

To learn more about Project Vote Smart, call 1-888-vote-smart or go online here.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Staff members represent UIS in cavalry band

By Courtney Westlake

Although dressing in Civil War period garb while performing songs from that time is exciting, two UIS campus community members have found that the clothing gets a little hot during the summertime.

"It isn't real good in the summer because it's wool," laughed Beverly Bunch, who is an associate professor in public administration. "But in the winter, it feels much better."

Despite the occasional heat, Bunch and Rose Schweikhart, who works as the dean's assistant in the College of Public Affairs and Administration, are both enjoying the opportunities they have to perform with the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Band, part of the Volunteer Regiment.

The band has been active since August 2006, which is when Schweikhart first began playing with the group. Bunch has been involved with the band since March 2007. She said she enjoyed hearing Schweikhart play around campus and town, and Schweikhart asked her to join, which she gladly accepted. Additionally, Todd Cranson, who is assistant director of co-curricular music at UIS, conducts the band.

Although the band members don't ride horses while playing like the Civil War bands did, "almost all of the music selections played are arrangements from bands that existed in the 1860s," Schweikhart said, except for one piece which is a more modern arrangement.

"That's what makes it a lot of fun, that we get to play period instruments and music from that era," Bunch said. "They're hard to play in tune, and that makes it challenging, but it's nice to be playing music from that era on instruments from that era."

Schweikhart plays a baritone, which has a tenor sound like trombone, she said. Normally, Bunch plays the French horn but as the horn wasn't around during that time, she has taken up the E Flat Alto.

The Volunteer Band and Regiment are based on the actual Cavalry that was out of Springfield, Bunch said, and it is fun to hear old stories about the band and its members.

At some point during the war, Schweikhart said, bands were cut because they were a large expense on the Army, so in many regiments - including Springfield's - officers themselves paid band members more salary to keep them in action, which was an extra $1 per month.

Bunch and Schweikhart said they are thrilled with the opportunity to share the music, and the history, of the Civil War time period with the community.

"I love that we get to play period music on a period instrument. And especially around here, people are so appreciate of the history, especially from the Civil War era," Schweikhart said.

The Cavalry Band performs at various locations around town, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, UIS and more. Schweikhart and Bunch are particularly looking forward to their next gig: taking part in the Cavalry Band's performance at the 1860s Period Ball held in honor of Lincoln’s 200th birthday at the Executive Mansion on February 9.

"We hope people come to our concerts; we have a lot of fun, and we love having an audience," Bunch said. "Everybody there loves what they are doing; we like brass, and we love the Civil War context."

Monday, January 07, 2008

Mims has seen tremendous growth in computer science

By Courtney Westlake

Dr. Ted Mims first started out his career in computer science working with paper tape, and then punched cards. The next years brought the era of terminals before desktop computers and laptops finally began serving the needs and wants of the general public and causing great impact in the field of computer science.

Mims came to UIS in 1990 and now serves as not only a professor of computer science, but as the chair of the computer science department. Mims' college studies originally focused on math, but after teaching math at the high school level, he eventually made the switch to the field of computer science.

After obtaining a master's and Ph.D. in computer science and teaching at Louisiana State and Nicholls State universities, Mims moved to Springfield to be part of the computer science department here at UIS, in which student enrollment has skyrocketed.

"In 1990, we had approximately 45 graduates and 75 undergraduates," Mims said. "In the spring semester of 2007, we had 350 graduate students and 200 undergraduates. So we've had more than 500 percent growth since 1990."

Mims said he enjoys working with both the faculty and the students within the program.

"I really like the faculty; they're energetic and enthusiastic about teaching," he said. "We have excellent students. When I came here, the majority of our students were adult students in their 30's with fulltime jobs. Now we also have evolved into admitting lower division students who are younger, less than 30 years old."

Three years ago, the computer science online program began bringing in more non-traditional working students who hail from all over the country. Nationwide enrollment in computer science has dropped anywhere from 30 to 60 percent, but in adding an online program, enrollment has increased 50 percent at UIS, Mims said.

"The online program brought students," he said. "Those are some of the brighter students we have; they are working for companies in the aerospace industry and major computer corporations."

As for the future of the field of computer science, Mims anticipates that security will be an area of interest and that online classes will continue to flourish.

"It seems younger students want to take more online classes than classes on campus," he said. "And I think that the programming will remain but language will change. We teach Java now, but it will be some other language in a few years from now."

Several students in UIS' computer science program have been recognized for national awards, and partnerships that have been recently developed are also an asset to the program. In 2007, for example, a partnership was developed with State Farm Insurance to make UIS the 18th university from which State Farm recruits nationally.

"This opportunity allows our students to do internships at State Farm, and several students of ours have been hired for fulltime positions with them," he said. "So that's been a great partnership, and we look to expand those partnerships with other companies."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Wheeler Sees Dedication from Students in PAR Program

By Courtney Westlake

Charles Wheeler has his lack of baseball skills to thank for his journalism career.

"When I tried out for the baseball team in high school, they had a rule that no freshmen were cut...they made an exception in my case," he laughed. "But the administration knew I was a very avid sports fan, and the Joliet Herald News was looking for someone to cover Joliet Catholic High School sports. I was a sophomore in high school when I had my first byline in the Herald News."

Wheeler eventually moved from sports reporting into political reporting - "In a sense, covering politics is like covering a sports event, except the stakes are so much higher," he noted - and spent 24 years at the Chicago Sun-Times before taking a position as the director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at UIS in 1993.

"I was in the Sun-Times bureau at the time when the Public Affairs Reporting program started, and we had an intern the very first class and all the way through," Wheeler said. "I thought very highly of the program and enjoyed working with the interns and thought this was a way to work with all of them."

The highly-regarded Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) program at UIS is a one-year master's degree program in which students spend one semester in classes and then work for six months as a full-time reporter for a news organization in the State Capitol, under the direct supervision and guidance of the outlet's bureau chief. The program emphasizes the importance of informing readers, listeners and viewers about ongoing events and activities that impact on their daily lives, Wheeler said.

"I would say the one thing that sets us apart from any other program I know of is our internship," he said. "Our program offers these students the opportunity to show what they can do in a real-life setting under the deadline pressures and the complexity of state government, and as a result, they are able to walk away with proof they can handle any beat someone would give them."

Graduates and students within the PAR program have certainly showcased this each year by receiving numerous awards in an annual competition sponsored by Capitolbeat, the national organization of journalists covering state and local governments. Wheeler himself received top honors in 2007, for the fourth straight year, for magazine commentary, recognizing his contributions as a columnist for Illinois Issues magazine.

Along with continued success, PAR students and professors, as well as other media professionals, also face challenges and changes today regarding a huge push for multimedia reporting, Wheeler said.

"When I started as a reporter using typewriters, you didn't have to worry about shooting a picture or recording a tape," he said. "Nowadays reporters at some places are expected to go out with video cameras and get film or audio clips, and all of that goes on the Web. I think that's the big challenge for our program, and for other journalism education: to get people to be thinking in a broader concept about what the different ways are to be telling the story."

Because of the amount of internships available with news organizations, the program isn't able to grow much regarding the number of students it can accept. But it has grown more competitive, Wheeler said, and all of the students are extremely committed both in the classroom and within the internship.

"My hope is that the program continues to flourish and attract the kind of people that we've been able to attract," Wheeler said. "I tell people I'm the most fortunate college instructor in the whole world because all of the students I work with in the program are highly motivated and very talented. I don't have to deal with folks just trying to get a Gentleman's C; they are very committed, and that's a real pleasure."