“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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Spring semester welcome: Education as oyster-shucking

lewis-hine-oyster-shuckers-bayou-la-batre-alabama-1911

Oyster shuckers, Bayou La Batre, Alabama, 1911.  Photograph by Lewis Hine.  Image found here.

To my students, both those I have had in class before and those who are new to me and/or new to college, welcome to the new year and a new semester!  I have not required any of you to visit this blog or this post, so your visit here reveals something about you to me: you are curious, inquisitive people who, yes, want to know as best you can what the the path straight ahead of you looks like, but who also aren’t above looking around the passing scenery as well.  Looking at the scenery–or reading this post–won’t get you any faster to where you are going; on the other hand, it just may be the case that the scenery might reveal to you something you hadn’t been aware of before, something that you might in fact find to be of even greater value to you than what you imagine awaits you at your destination.  (I won’t make the same claim about this post.)

Oh–the picture up there.  In a way, it is about you.

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A Post-election Anecdote

(Note to Facebook friends: below the fold is something I posted on FB yesterday that you may or may not have already seen.)

When I started this blog, I’d hoped to keep its content strictly academic and pedagogical in nature.  As everyone who teaches knows, however, events in the world outside often make themselves become the stuff of what goes on inside.  Our recent elections have become just such an event in my classes, and I’m certain in yours as well.  I thought I’d share with you something that happened between me and a student as we talked about her final paper for the semester, and how the usual spaces between class work and the world outside, between teacher and student, became blurred in a completely unanticipated way.  What I describe below is a version of precisely the set of ideas I want this blog’s title, Domestic Issue, to evoke in the reader.

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On Being More Interesting at Parties: Cockroaches and the Human(ities)

Two Fridays ago, Jim, the chair of our department, presented us with data from our college and some articles from national publications that made my colleagues and me uncomfortable to confront and discuss.  Their general subject: If one chooses to measure the value of a discipline in higher education (especially in community colleges) by the number of students enrolled in its offerings in that discipline and the number of declared majors it attracts, then the apparent value of our discipline of English–or, more precisely, the teaching of literature–is in clear decline.  In our own department’s case, we see the decline in enrollments in–and, thus, the number of sections offered in–our face-to-face literature classes.  Online sections seem to have healthy enrollments, but those sections seem not to attract potential majors to us: there’s an inverse correlation between the increasing numbers of those sections and the number of declared majors in English and the other humanities.

Part of my own discomfort in thinking about this subject is due, no doubt, to the fact that we (okay, okay: I) cannot help but regard the importance of English as so self-evident that any dolt can see that, and so why on earth is our/my discipline in trouble as measured by enrollments and majors?  But then again, we college-prof types, no matter our subject areas, tend to have already been persuaded as to our respective disciplines’ self-evident value, or else we wouldn’t have become college-prof types to begin with.  (Speaking for myself, while no one actively discouraged me from doing so, one and only one person is

metamorphosis

The cover art for Melville House‘s edition of The Metamorphosis.

ultimately responsible for talking me into spending two years on earning a masters and four on a PhD, not to mention staying on at this work for 23 years.)  That particular kind of epistemic closure, though, puts us in the very position we find ourselves in: we’re just not accustomed to having to justify what we do even to our own colleges’ administrators, much less more indifferent or hostile audiences; and, by the way, it’s a very cold comfort to me that those scientists arguing about the very real dangers posed by the very real phenomenon of climate change happen to find themselves in a similar position as they seek funding for research from congressional committees on science who are openly hostile to that work.

At any rate, Jim challenged us to make pitches on behalf of our literature courses in our classes, and this past week I tried my best to do so.  As it happened, in my own Intro to Lit class back on Tuesday, right there on the syllabus, I had what I thought might serve as a pretty good entree into that pitch: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

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A Spring Semester welcome to students

Las_Meninas_01

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas (1656)

A new year and a new semester are upon us, and I will be meeting students this week, some of them whom I’ve had in class before, and some for the first time.  I will be saying “Welcome to class” to all of them, of course; but if you–yes, you, the person now reading the very sentence I am now writing–have found your way here because you happened to see the URL address for this blog in your syllabus and became curious (I really am speaking to you in particular), then allow me to speak to you for a bit.

Later this semester, some of you will see the Velázquez painting you see here as part of an introduction to a writing assignment, but for the moment I’d like to put it to another use: to think of what you see here as something like a representation of the educational experience and, thus, to invite you to answer a perhaps not-so-simple question–“Where are you in this painting?”

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Greetings to students, and some things to think about

John and Scruffy

With his not-very-smart-but-friendly-and-faithful boon companion, Scruffy.

Hello to my students, both new and returning, this fall.  If you are reading this, I want to affirm your natural curiosity: A crucial part of being truly, fully successful at the College Thing is curiosity, and I encourage you to give free rein to that impulse in you–not just in your classes, either, but in Life more generally.  You can’t know whether something is going to be boring until you give it a chance to bore you, now can you?

As long as you’re here, I invite you to have a look around, and even leave comments if you’re so inclined.  Under the “About” tab you’ll find a brief bio and some basic assumptions I have about college.  The various tabs that have Domestic Issue in their title are concerned with my ongoing book project.  The “Teaching” tab is a round-up of examples of paper assignments for my classes; you’ll be seeing some of these as the semester progresses.  Finally, in addition to these posts, the “Home” page has links to various things that you may find of interest, if not actually helpful to you.

Now: if you’re really curious, below the “Continue reading” link you’ll find a long-ish discussion of what I think are some of the important questions that community colleges and their various audiences–students and their families, faculty and administration, businesses, and governments–are encountering and need to give some serious thought to.  All of those audiences will say that students are here “to get an education,” which is the right answer.  But if you ask them what that means to them, they may all list pretty much the same kinds of things, but I suspect that how they prioritize them will differ.

So.  If all of that sounds intriguing to you, by all means continue reading.  If not, that’s okay, too–as I said above, these ideas will still be showing up in various ways, mostly indirectly, as the semester progresses.

I wish you all the very best this semester.  It is my privilege to be teaching you.  I will try my best to do right by you.

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So, why am I writing this book again??

To be clear, I’ve known why; however, someone looking at my vita and seeing where I teach now and where I’ve taught before, and how long it’s been since I obtained my doctorate, might wonder.  Why now, after all this time?  So, I’d like to point that person to this essay by David Perry (thanks to my FB friend Kendra Leonard for linking to it), and in particular to this paragraph:

For me, the key was realizing that I was writing this book solely for myself. I believed I knew some things about history that were important and would contribute to a field of study to which I have dedicated much of my life. I believed that the best way to communicate my findings was via a long-form monograph, rather than chopped into discrete articles. I did not, and do not, expect this book to transform my career. A new study shows that perceptions of prestige matter at least as much as quality of work in terms of hiring at top jobs, so no matter what I write, those perceptions are static.
In addition to Perry’s discussion of the academic and professional aspects of things, I would add two things.  One, it’s been immensely gratifying to do some reading of recent work on culture in Latin America and find that, on the whole, my arguments that I’d made way back when in the diss.  seem germane to these recent discussions (when, I confess, I had my doubts as I was writing the thing).  This is important to me because, given the nature of the classes I teach at Butler, I get little space in the classroom to explore these ideas, and I really need that intellectual outlet.  The other thing I would add that has been true for me is I tell my students: they will be more engaged, if not happier writers if, whenever possible, they can think of their academic writing as a creative act, as a form of self-expression.  To put things delicately, because I’m not up against a deadline, it’s been easy to, um, become distracted from the task; when I am working diligently, though, I’m learning things I hadn’t known I believed about New World writing, and I’m having a pretty good time in the process (even when, as now, I’m in the middle of unsnarling a rather tangled section of the Columbus chapter).  I’d also add as a corollary that if we’re regularly engaged in writing and researching, we can speak from those experiences as we teach, counsel, and advise our students regarding their own writing.
So.  I’m doing this because, as Perry says of his own book,  I think I have something to contribute to discussions about the literatures and cultures of the Americas, and–just as importantly–I want to have some intellectual fun.  I would hope that others of you who find yourselves in similar circumstances can see your way clear to say the same thing about your work.

Teaching Idea: Build Your Own Micronation

West_florida_map

18th-century map that serves as the basis for the territorial claims of the micronation of the Dominion of British West Florida. Image via the “History” page of the Dominion’s website, here.

Note: Occasionally, as happens with all teachers, I’ll read something that will lead me to think, “With a little pushing/pulling/mulling over, that just might make for a good writing assignment for my students.”  So, some of those will appear here under the “Teaching Idea” category that you’ll see over in the right-hand gutter.  I don’t pretend that these are in any way finished; rather, these are more like my thinking “out loud” in this space, with a tacit invitation to whoever might be interested to weigh in with comments.

A couple of weeks ago, I read this article on micronations in Motherboard and immediately thought it might have potential for a research project for my Comp II students (that is the “research paper” composition class we teach at Butler).  Almost immediately, other things came up that claimed my attention, and I didn’t do anything more with the idea until yesterday when an article on the Dominion of British West Florida popped up in my Facebook feed, and the next thing you know, I found myself adding some links to micronation websites over on the right-hand side of my blog as a future resource for my students.  We in our department are moving toward demanding more research from our students throughout the Comp sequence, and I think that, at least as this half-formed thing looks in my head at the moment, it would certainly fulfill that goal.  Also, I want to give those so inclined the opportunity to be creative and/or learn more about a topic or issue they think is important; the Motherboard article’s mention of Westarctica‘s serving primarily as a site to inform people of conservation issues and climate change made me see that this project could be serious as well as fun.  Finally, the idea of micronations dovetails in interesting ways with my academic interests in the idea of place and, in conjunction with the book project, with the idea I’ve been writing about regarding the New World as a heterotopic space.

So here’s a tentative list of elements that I will require my students to address in this project.

Teaching/Academic blogs and resources

I have been busy adding links to colleagues’ own blogs as well as ones they’ve suggested over in the sidebar.  It’s a short list, as you can see, but I want to grow it; so, if you have a teaching or academic blog, or you sometimes visit such a place for ideas or inspiration, I hope you will include links to them here in the comments or on Facebook.

Also, for anyone interested: under the new tab titled “Domestic Issue–Online Resources,” I have some links to sites that may be of interest to people doing research in “literature of the Americas”-type stuff.  Again, the list is short (over time, some truly valuable sites have been taken down); but, again, I hope that if you have some suggestions, you’ll let me know here in comments.

Content now up under “Teaching”

The Most Interesting English Department in the World

A few years ago, our department meeting was graced by two luminaries: Rebecca Moore Howard (author of Writing Matters, our department’s grammar text), and the ever-mysterious, ever-fascinating Most Interesting Man in the World.

In case anyone is interested, on the “Teaching” page I now have a round-up of assignments I’m especially pleased with, along with a narrative that talks about how some of them, at least, came into being.  I hope you will enjoy what you find there.