Wallace Stevens in Wonsevu

Wonsevu Christian Church. Wonsevu, Chase County, Kansas. Taken by me, March 2019.

The church you see here is, not counting the large barn and cattle pen facing it, one-third of the buildings in the village of Wonsevu [“ONE-seh-voo”], Kansas. There is also a small community hall and a frame one-room school house, built in 1885 and long since closed. The house nearest to these buildings (which happens to be blocked from view by the church in this picture) is between a quarter- and a half-mile away.

You are reading about this because I and some students of mine and two colleagues made Wonsevu our first stop on a driving tour of Chase County, Kansas, this past weekend. For a couple of years now in my first-semester composition classes, I have had the opportunity to teach William Least Heat-Moon’s book PrairyErth, a book whose subject is Chase County, a sparsely-populated farming and ranching county in the Flint Hills about an hour northeast of Wichita. As part of the class, I schedule two optional field trips into the county: the driving tour, in which we visit some of the places Heat-Moon mentions in his book; and a trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to have the experience of walking land that still looks pretty much like it did when the Kaw and other tribes lived there. Before this past weekend, these trips, admittedly, had not been ringing successes: students wouldn’t show, or the weather wasn’t ideal. This time, though, two students attended (out of six; a third would have come except that a day or so before he’d gotten a new job), and two of my colleagues joined us as well. Last but certainly not least: the predicted drizzly day never materialized–indeed, after an overcast start, the sun broke through and the day was sunnier and pleasantly cool. But it was at our stop at Wonsevu that, in a small way, the hopes I’d had for teaching Heat-Moon’s book and making the trips out to the county became larger than the logical kind of sense they made for me.

While we walked around the three buildings situated around the T-intersection that constitutes Wonsevu’s center, I pulled out my cellphone to see if I had any messages from my wife.  There was no signal out there.  I looked around me, and I realized what I was hearing–the wind, some birds–and what I was not hearing–no road noise (the nearest paved road of any kind is about 10 miles away), no trains (the railroads, though frequently traveled in the county, are even farther away), no aircraft overhead.  I felt, for a fleeting moment, the full weight of the landscape on me; I offered no resistance to it.  I felt the meaning of the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man”: I was beholding “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (l. 15).  And that’s when I knew with absolute certainty–something the rest of the day only confirmed–that I am right to want to create opportunities for our students to have moments of this full immersion in a space right next door to them that they are almost completely ignorant of, and earn academic credit to boot.

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Mid-July work

I have just now finished my first read-through of PrairyErth and will shortly begin to work my way through it again, this time looking at notes I’ve made in the book by passages that might serve well as jumping-off points for writing assignments for my class this fall.  So, this seems like a good time to take stock of academic-related work I’ve accomplished so far this summer.

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Summer reading and writing

plaza de las tres culturas2

The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521.  The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”

Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived.  This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists.  But list-make we must.

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“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies


The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

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Mid-semester updates: Several varieties of Domestic Issue

Flint Hills

An ariel shot of an annual springtime event: the intentionally-set range fires in the Kansas Flint Hills, which burn off dead grass from the previous season to encourage new growth, and which cause that new growth to set its roots ever deeper in the soil . . . and which causes them city folks in Kansas City to complain about air quality for a few weeks.  Via Kansas Livestock Association.

Spring Break has arrived for us, and so I have a chance to post some brief comments on some things that I’ve been engaged in/preoccupied by since my last post, back at the beginning of the semester:

Reading.  For the book project, I have been reading and thinking about certain writings of the 19th-century Cuban nationalist José Martí, both his well-known essay “Our America” and writings he produced about his experiences while living in New York, in exile from his native Cuba.  What is noteworthy about Martí’s rhetoric in “Our America” is that he simultaneously distinguishes Latin America (the “Our” of the title) from the United States and describes a politics for Latin America that does not yet exist.  In Foucauldian terms, in the essay Latin America becomes something like a heterotopia-in-formation, a space whose political grammar, at least, has yet to come into being.  Seeing as Martí wrote this essay while in New York, his subject position as exile relative to the space that is his subject makes for an interesting dynamic to consider within my book project’s larger subject of the New World as a heterotopic space.  It seems to me as well that Martí’s writings serve as both precursors and exemplars of the cultural work of writers in Latin America, who occupy a space that Brazilian cultural theorist Silviano Santiago calls o entre-lugar, “the space-between” the cultural hegemonies of Europe and the United States.  So anyway, some of this will be finding its way to that part of the Cabeza de Vaca/Last of the Mohicans chapter in which I discuss other writers’ various attempts to produce, as I put it there, “a language” through which they can more authentically convey the lived experience of this hemisphere’s new peoples.

Interdisciplinary course(s) on the Flint Hills.  I recently learned that a long-time colleague of mine in our college’s biology department has wanted to develop a course called something like “A Natural History of the Flint Hills.”  This caught my attention because, off and on for the past couple of years, I have wondered about the possibility of and interest in some sort of interdisciplinary course, or maybe even discipline-specific offerings, on various aspects of this distinctive region.  The college’s main campus is in El Dorado, on the western edge of this place, and we even have a couple of branch campuses in towns in the hills themselves; yet, we offer nothing along the lines of what we have in mind.  Though I’m pretty sure it’s not the case, it seems as though our orientation is toward equipping students so that they can leave from here rather than equipping them to give them reasons to stay–an issue of no little concern for a part of the state whose growth is projected to be more or less flat for the next couple of decades.  So anyway, last week I dropped by my colleague’s office to ask him about his interest in maybe doing something together, and as soon as we realized we’d both read William Least Heat-Moon’s  PrairyErth, we knew we’d be good fellow travellers on this adventure.  The plan right now, such as it is, is to identify other colleagues who might be interested in working with us on this, and see about creating some space in the academic calendar for spitballin’ sessions on how to incorporate a course/several courses into our offerings, ideas for how to facilitate off-site study, etc. You may also see some writing appear here on this general subject in the months ahead.

Wish us luck.  We think we can persuade our colleagues and administration that this is something that can help us add another dimension to how community colleges can serve their regions.

Baby coming.  Finally, that most domestic–and the most issue-y–of domestic issues is that my wife and I will be welcoming a baby boy into the world three days from now, on March 21st.  This new life is a blessing for us in more ways than the usual ones associated with babies, and so we are excited to welcome him into our lives and to see what new course(s) his life will set ours upon.  Waiting on his arrival, especially during these last couple of weeks as my wife has begun to experience the occasional contraction, has also been an enormous if happy distraction from what I’m supposed to be doing; so having him here will be a more concrete and thus more manageable distraction.  I think.  Since I’ll be taking a leave of absence from teaching for the two weeks following Spring Break, I’ll have ample opportunity to find out just how mistaken I am.

Teaching Idea: Notes Toward an Ethics of Inconvenience

Someone is wrong on internet

“Someone” here just may be me, this morning anyway. Via xkdc.

Reading this article in Motherboard this morning led me to write down what you see below. I’ve labeled it “Teaching Ideas” but, as of now, I have no idea just what I mean by that.  If you read all of this (and I hope you will, and I hope you’ll comment as the spirit moves you), just remember that the operative word in the title is “Notes”:

Research showing young people are less sympathetic/empathetic than their cohort of 30 years ago.

The rise of selfie-sticks; the “production of presence”; a technologically-enabled self-indulgence, if not full-blown narcissism.  Turkle’s thesis in Alone Together: The very devices and platforms that allow us to be constantly in contact with/available to others also, paradoxically, keep us from being too inconvenienced by consideration of, let alone the actual emotional needs of, those same others.  We keep others not even at arm’s length anymore, but at machine’s length–which by its very nature does not permit of genuine human contact.  The rise of haptic technologies are a tacit recognition of this: the further enhancing of the illusion of a “realistic” experience when one is immersed in a virtual space.

IT industries’ isolating of their employees as much as possible from daily, mundane interaction with the world (via shuttles, self-contained campuses) even as they argue that the products they create will change that same world.  As in the Motherboard article above, machines now really are building machines; the Invisible Hand of the market becomes ever harder to see.

Efficiences in education/rejections, in various ways, of the traditional educational model.  Re: efficiences: Something that’s existed at least since Dewey, but computers, the growing potential of machines to learn, and Internet technologies create more temptation and/or pressure on schools at every grade level to educate more students more quickly at lower costs–marketed as convenience to students.  Online classes, MOOCs, “robo-graders.” Re: rejections: Seen in the rise of homeschooling in response to rejection/fear of/denigration of public education; the parallel reduction of funding of (if not also, as in Kansas, active political hostility toward) public education and resistance to improving both salaries and preparation of teachers; the rejection of traditional collegiate model in favor of a kind of entrepreneurial, I’ll-learn-what-I-want-to-and-not-what-people-think-I-need-to-know approach to post-secondary education.

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Teaching Idea: Reading a Painting

Edward Hopper conference-at-night

Edward Hopper, Conference at Night (c. 1949). Wichita Art Museum. Via wikipaintings .org.

None of what follows pretends to be something no one has ever thought of before, much less done before.  I’m writing about this, though, in part to push myself with being a little braver with how I use images in class as a way of encouraging my students to look more closely at them and, perhaps, at traditional texts as well.  So, bear with me.

For many years now, I have used paintings as in-class writing prompts, as entrees into discussions of certain topics, and as the subjects for paper topics, and last year I created a prompt which asks student to write about a still from a film’s 70-minute mark–both the contents of that image and what it might reveal to us about the film as a whole that an uninterrupted viewing does not.  (In case you’re interested, my inspiration for that idea comes from here; and here is my attempt to do the assignment myself (I am asking students for a minimum of a thousand words): 70-Minute Casablanca).  I’m sharing all of this with you now, though, because our department chair has encouraged us to work with our students on becoming more attentive and patient readers, and it occurred to me that, in addition to modeling the reading of a couple of poems with my students, I could throw a painting into the mix as well.

One of my favorite paintings to use in class is the one you see here, Conference at Night.  It’s a great painting by a great painter; it lends itself well to class discussions (even by Hopper’s standards, this one is especially enigmatic, appearing to be rather “So what?” at first glance but then becoming more interesting as we discuss it); and it happens to be here in Wichita (some of my students in the past have gone to see it in the museum after our having talked about it in class).  (Just as a quick addendum, I also love using paintings by Vermeer in class, but they require more historical setting-up, which delays getting on with the discussion; I’ve also used some paintings by Magritte for short in-class writing prompts, but it’s harder (for me) to have a sustained discussion about them–they’re a little too enigmatic.  I’ve yet to try a non-representational piece for this.)  It so happens that last week, we had lively discussions about it in both of the classes that looked at it.  Below the fold, I’d like to share some things that I say/ask about it to get conversation started, and some observations my students made on it; after that, I’ll do some musing about how to up the ante for making still more substantive use of it or some other, equally-suitable painting.

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Teaching Idea: Prompt for “Build Your Own Micronation” research project


The Principality of Sealand, established in 1967 and (self)-declared a nation-state in 1975. More here. Image found here.

Back in May, I posted about offering my students in Comp II, as an option for their research project, the chance to create and build a website for their own micronation.  Last night/this morning, I finally got something worked out that I think will work; it appears below the fold.

My hope is that this semester and next, at least a couple of students will give this a try so I can see what problems they encounter.  My long-term goal is to make the planning of a micronation the subject of a Special Topics course–something that gets called “English” but is actually interdisciplinary in its content.

Anyway, here it is.  If you have any thoughts or questions or concerns, I hope you’ll share them in the comments.

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Teaching Idea: “Build-a-brain” and the role of the emotions in consciousness


A still from Ex Machina. Image found here.

As part of my Comp II class, I assign groups of readings on various kinds of technologies and their potential impact on traditional notions of what it means to be human–in terms of both the self and our varied and various relationships with other people.  One set of those readings is on Artificial Intelligence: whether strong AI (which is to say, a genuinely thinking, understanding machine intelligence) is even possible; whether it’s a good idea to pursue this line of research; what the building of robots to serve as companions for humans implies for how we value (or not) interactions with others; the already-occurring displacement of workers by robots and machines performing tasks once done by people, and what to do about that displacement; etc.  I also assign them this short video in which Rosalind Picard of MIT provides what amounts to a short introduction on the need for and value of creating the capacity for emotional intelligence in robots that will be interacting with humans.  Picard is very precise here: she says that “emotional intelligence” is not the same as “emotion” and that we cannot yet build a machine with self-generated emotions.  She does, though, sort of wonder aloud what such a machine might look like, which is one of the ideas dramatized (to, I think, substantive and powerful effect) in this spring’s Ex Machina.  I had also been showing WALL-E as a way of showing a version of what emotional intelligence might look like in robots (as well as seeing a dramatization of a possible set of consequences of a post-human society for us as individuals and as communities); beginning this fall, though, I’ll be giving her a try: the fact that we never see Samantha in the film, but only Theodore’s responses to, um, her, gives us more to chew on, I think, regarding this issue of the distinction between emotional intelligence and emotion.  Without giving too much of the plot of Ex Machina away, that film raises that same issue, but seeing Ava and Caleb physically interacting with each other complicates matters considerably–for me, anyway.

That’s a lot of context just to be getting to the part in this post where I say, A couple of those readings have gotten a bit long in the tooth and/or are too obscure for what I want my goals to be, so when I ran across Michael Graziano’s thought-experiment/essay “Build-a-brain” a couple of days ago, I was glad to see that it can serve as a short, clear, and fairly sophisticated introduction to how we might achieve consciousness in a robot.  I think it might work equally well, by the way, as a way of helping students think critically–in this instance, to say, “Okay–I see what Graziano’s getting at . . . but is anything left out of his discussion of consciousness? And, for that matter, even though Graziano says that consciousness is a real thing and not illusory, does he really believe that?”

More below the fold.

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Teaching Idea: “The ‘John Henry’ Variations”

John_Henry statue, Talcott, Summers County, West Virginia

Statue of John Henry, Talcott, Summers County, West Virginia. This is one of two sites (the other is in Alabama) that lays claim to providing the historical foundation for the story of the competition between John Henry and the steam-driven machine. Via Wikipedia.

Actually, this isn’t so much a Teaching idea as it is a nudge to me to do some archival stuff in the future in support of a Teaching Idea.

For a few years now, I’ve had the idea of using the multitudinous pre-WWII versions of “John Henry” as a way of getting adventurous students to think about and speculate on the subjects of American legendary figures, the mechanization of labor, differences and similarities between white and black attitudes about labor, and–heck, why not?–even thinking about music itself in an age before music-making and -marketing had become a national industry.  Well, you can probably guess, just from that little description, that none of my students has yet taken this up as a research project.  Some of that’s on me and how the prompt is written: it’s just too busy.  But some of it is surely due to the scattered nature of the materials themselves, not to mention the rather ephemeral nature of the Web itself: as a source for my students, I had been relying on one blog’s round-up of around 100 versions of “John Henry” or songs that in some way addressed that tradition . . . and then that blog just went away.

So, I changed the prompt to refer students to YouTube, just telling them to go trawling around in there for different performances, but that breaks one of my rules for assignment design: Don’t ask students to do anything you yourself wouldn’t want to do.  I must have subconsciously given up on the idea because I hadn’t felt especially motivated to do anything to improve it.  But this morning, I read this long article by Ann Powers at npr.org on the current state of the archiving of music on the Internet, and a voice inside my head said, “Hey!  Why don’t YOU build a ‘John Henry’ archive?”

So.  It won’t be this summer because of book-project stuff, but this fall or next spring that’s what I’ll be doing.  It’ll have some links to historical stuff, but its main focus will be on the songs themselves, along with background information, wherever available, about the performers.  I’m persuaded that the number and variety of this/these song(s) can tell the thoughtful listener a great deal about us as a nation, or us as we existed around a century ago; maybe, with the existence of one centralized place for recordings and some information, I can encourage my students (and whoever else might happen upon it) to think about those things, as well.

EDIT: Before I forget it, there was, accompanying the Powers article above, this round-up of good online archives of music, some of which will come in handy once I get started on this thing.