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

CottonwoodFalls

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.