Connection is why we’re here

Today, we watched Brene Brown on TED… to think about connection because we’re getting connected to students at Oklahoma City University through our blogs and their wikispaces. “Connection is why we’re here,” says Dr. Brown. We’re down with that.

Embracing vulnerability is one way to make a connection that seems difficult to do in a society where we are all “connected” online, but in some ways, we’ve never been so disconnected. Substantially writing is one way of connecting.

Being a blogger in a writing class letting people know who we are–being seen is being vulnerable. It’s a hard thing to be seen. We can hide behind a 14-character Tweet, or a Facebook status update, but it’s hard to hide behind a big ‘ol blog for a class when you have to write a lot of posts and talk about things that are uncomfortable, or when you have to write what you really believe. It’s taking a risk, and that’s scary.

Will readers dismiss what we say or praise the words we write? Will readers believe we are worthy of their time? Will we feel we’re worthy? How do we get over the stage fright we all feel when others see our words? What will everyone in my class think about me as a person when they see my writing? Will that change how they see me?

Historically, a student writes, and only the teacher sees that writing. Sometimes, a writing class (I hope most of the time) is structured so that students see everyone’s writing, on a regular basis. Ideally, students should also have authentic audiences. I’ve seen students who are flattered by followers of their blogs–they’ve seen how they are worthy. Their writing matters. It matters not just for the teacher, or for peers, but for someone else in the world whom they do not know.

Being vulnerable as a writer is beautiful thing–what’s the point of writing unless there’s an audience? (Well, personal journal writing is great for writers. A writer’s notebook can be an amazing tool for producing writing, but it’s a private thing… until the writer chooses what parts to make public.)

Typically, writers want feedback–they want positive feedback, for sure–but they perhaps want to say something that makes a difference to someone and then hear about that. Even writers undertaking the forced march of writing in college classes want positive feedback–constructive criticism. (I remember giving my mother a draft of a 30 page paper I had written. I thought it was so great, so intriguing, so insightful, so well written. I was very proud and couldn’t wait to hear what she thought. After she finished reading, she said, “You have a typo on page one and a missing comma on page three. Other than that, it seems pretty good.” Huh?)

Or rather, people want connection; they want interaction (unless, of course, you’re Titus Andronicus). Writers are no different–it’s scary to admit we are vulnerable, that we might need others, and we are so OUT there with our writing on blogs. If we are rejected as not-worthy people, and especially as writers, what happens to us? We are pierced through our hearts and we bleed.

We might even be moved to say things like:

I hate writing.

English is/was my worst subject.

I have always been bad at writing.

I can’t write.

I’m no good at spelling.

Commas–nobody can understand those stupid rules.

We step out of the way of the thing that makes us feel like dirt, in this case, writing. We avoid it. We avoid having anyone see our writing because we don’t want to deal with that sort of ugly.

Blogging in a class–can’t get away from writing in public, can’t get away from having others read our writing, can’t get away from being vulnerable, can’t. We’re out there. We’re required to read our blogs, to make comments, to think, to respond, to share our own writing. It’s part of the class: required, mandatory, obligatory. No way out.

How hard is that?

Could be mighty hard, but it’s a good kind of hard. Brown said vulnerability, necessary in order to live a “wholehearted,” isn’t excruciating nor exhilarating for the wholehearted, but it is the thing that makes them beautiful.

Vulnerability is the connection.

Are we worthy? Of course we are. And how do we know that? We’ve proven it to each other by being our own readers, writing for ourselves. We did that.

We are the connection. And we are beautiful.

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Memory and memorials: what does writing make?

As we watch parts of Eyes on the Prize, I think about how this is a documentary–obviously, but it’s also a text about what is remembered, a memory that we participate in, a memorial of a kind that allows us to see and hear the past, to know what happened, to see images of the past. We can’t live through the past, but we can remember what was.

We, in this class, are engaged in making and understanding memories–of what we are learning, of what we are reading, of what we are creating. A college education is a journey of monumental change–if you let it be that. This class should be a memorial to you after it’s over… Make your memorial rock.

Here’s some of what we can look at when we engage with memory making and understanding how people make memories or remember, sometimes with pain, the past. Where we live now is where many died for Civil Rights… It’s stunning to me to know this.

The original cover of GWTW (1936)

Right now, I’m thinking about how I took everything for granted that my parents told me. I never knew much about the South except for what I read in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Honest. I only knew this book. I knew no one from the South, nor did I ever know anyone who’d ever traveled in the South. It was all conjecture on my part what the South was about and based on silly novels and movies about them.

My history classes really only got through WWII in high school. I took Civil War and Reconstruction classes in college, but again, nothing recent… and my modern American history classes really focused on Vietnam, not Civil Rights. It seemed like the South and Civil Rights was so far from Southern California in space and time and culture. Though, if I’d known to draw connections across borders, I could have made links between the Civil Rights Movement and the immigrant farm workers in California. If I’d know to do it, I could have found alignments between the Civil Rights Movement and the treatment of Asian cultures in California or the West. I never had anyone make those connections for me. I was told that everyone who fought the status quo was an agitator and irregular and probably Communist… Consequently, anyone who rocked the middle class white boat was wrong to do that. I never understood the world I was born into and lived through. I never knew, not really knew, what was going on during my youth except for Vietnam–what that a result of being on the left coast? I was relatively sequestered from reality. Perhaps that’s right for a child.

But now I’m playing catch up after moving to Alabama, and I’m making sure my child knows who Emmitt Till is and what happened to him, how he was murdered for not understanding the culture he found himself in the midst of, allegedly killed by Ray Bryant and J.W. Milam. One of you is memorializing Till with a playlist. You honor his death with your work.

We should remember that what we do is write about how we feel, what we learn, what surprises us, what moves us, what we will remember, what we want others to remember. And that we must be always respectful to those who died or were wounded in their fight for what they believed was right.

Don’t forget that we are a memorial machine in some ways; our emotions will get the better of us, but we need to think about how it was that the Civil Rights movement was needed as well as what happened. Now that’s weirdly connected back to GWTW… or at least the idea of the South that infused that book–the only South I knew until I lived in Alabama.

What would you march for?

What are your rights? How do you know? Do you have a right to this education? Do you have a right to vote? What does that mean?

Where do rights come from? Why do we have them?

Walkers from Selma to Montgomery

Read about them here or anywhere you like. Now, write about what you would do if they were taken away from you. Would you march? Would you go to jail? Would you sacrifice your life? What would you sacrifice?

How are you now participating in keeping the memory alive of the Civil Rights Movement? Is it all over because everyone everywhere has equal rights, human rights, civil rights? What is left to be done? What role does writing play in guaranteeing rights, in securing freedom?

How does your writing matter now? What does our memory actually mean to history, our records here, our thinking?

What would you give if you decided to march? Would you give up your feet?

A marcher's feet on day three from Selma to Montgomery

Would you be willing to suffer pain? Would you be willing to walk on blisters, broken feet, through mud, rain, cold, threats?

Would you be willing to put yourself in the way of violence? Tear gas? Beatings? Death?

I like to think I would be willing to give more than a small donation for what I believe in… it’s easy to write a check to help a cause, but could I ever be this brave? Could I ever give up what I have to get what I want? Could I ever be courageous enough to stand up? I don’t know. It frightens me to think what people have endured for their rights here. Think what happens to people still… every day in countries around the world to people who fight for their rights, or who have no rights.

What it is like to be beaten, or breathe in tear gas, to be shot, to even be truly threatened? That has to be what we need to say doesn’t matter if we are willing to fight, to protest, to march.

After watching the interviews in Never Lost Sight of Freedom, and specifically, “Bloody Sunday: A Sister Story,” I’m…. I’m not sure what I am. I know this much, though: I live in a place where extraordinary people have lived and died for Civil Rights. I’m proud of that.

Do you have a rock to stand on? Will you vote?

I would never not vote, even though it’s my right to not vote. Too many people died for my right tovote. I remember the first time I voted and the last time I voted and nearly every time between those times. I am a proud voter. I intend to have my voice heard even if it is only one among millions. I might be the one vote that decides the fate of my community, funding for my school, the future of my country. I will always vote. If I have to drag myself to the polls on a bloody stump with a knife in my side, if I have to walk across a minefield of glass on my eyeballs, I will vote.

You can only hold us back for so long...

My grandmother was alive and a young woman in 1920, one of the first women to vote in the United States. Women before her suffered for suffrage. They were beaten, undertook starvation sit-ins when imprisoned, force-fed, raped, and killed. (Notice how the word “suffrage” appears to be a conflation of suffer and rage. I’m not saying it is–its derivation is something else, but I’m just saying, look at it. What does it look like?)

Women fight for the right to vote.

Women are still fighting for the right to vote all over the world–some women still denied the right. There are also small groups of people who are oppressed and cannot vote–still countries where large groups of people have no right to vote on the government that controls their lives. This is not okay.

Watching the film, Never Lose Sight of Freedom, the film shown at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, today reminds me of what many people have sacrificed in order to just get people registered to vote, let alone vote.

A memorable moment from this film (it’s not an exact quote):

American democracy was not born on July 4, 1776, but in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960s.

This moment, too, is etched in my mind… like a carving in rock:

Here’s this rock. I walked on this rock. You take this rock and remember what you can do when you stand up for something.

This last moment in the film is the one where I started crying when I was at the Interpretive center watching this film. An older woman puts a small stone into the hand of a young woman and tells her–“See this? I walked here for freedom. I walked on this rock. I stood here.” It’s chilling. As soon as the film was over and I recovered from my emotional shock, I viewed the museum with proper respect, bought the film to teach with, and a few others, and I walked outside and picked up a rock.

I keep that rock in the console of my vehicle to remind me that I walked where these people walked. I now have the obligation to share what I know. As a teacher and a parent, I cannot see the world around me, and what happened here, and not be moved, not be determined that my life somehow must contribute to change.

If I had to pick a song that underscores the reason I am here right now, watching this film with students, understanding the Civil Rights Movement in a whole new way with them and because of them, it must be Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (1963). I’m might like Otis Redding’s version better (1965) because I feel him singing it–I know that the change is coming–I can tell. Al Green’s version is very fine, too. Change is gonna come for sure.

And we’re the ones who are going to do the changing. Our class. We as writers. We’ll make a difference. Change is gonna come because of us. Because of what we are learning and what we will remember. We have the rock of our learning that we will stand on.

Now. What will we do with that rock?

Why we have a network in our class

Each class I teach, I hope to create a network of friends, classmates, peers, colleagues. I’m inspired by Steven Johnson’s use of the term liquid network in Where Good Ideas Come From. It resonates with me for a few reasons: hanging out having coffee, tea, talking, learning. In his TED talk, he mentions the first coffee shop in England. In his book, I’m digging deeper into the things he highlights in the talk.

But I don’t want to talk about that right this moment. I want to talk about how observation is part of writing/thinking/learning and developing our brains into fabulous tools that enable us to enrich our lives every day. Just what we’ve been doing this semester in this class so far… Steven Johnson’s work is along for the ride, though, especially his book, The Ghost Map. And I’ll circle around to it again.

Here’s my story about observing the world around me and how it got me to National GIS Day on 16 November 2011 and the particular button (below) and why Steven Johnson’s work is connected in a couple of ways.

River Region National GIS Day (AUM)

In the fall of 2010, I was deep into organizing AUM Writes! (a celebration of the National Day on Writing), teaching a Victorian poetry and prose class, a professional writing for nurses class, and going wild with a button maker I’d just purchased. I’d made a hundred different buttons that fall for the writing celebration, for each of my students, for many faculty members, for all the English and Philosophy professors in my department–a bunch of different designs–unique to various folks. I was having a blast.

I taught Steven Johnson’s TED talk on his book, The Ghost Map, in both my Victorian class and my nursing writing class (who is this guy’s publicist because he’s everywhere?). The map Johnson is referring to in this book is the one created by Dr. John Snow to understand the cholera outbreak on Broad Street, London (the Soho area) in 1854. He is considered a father of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I didn’t know that until one day…

I was walking back from Victorian class to my office and passed a poster for National GIS Day. I thought. Oh, interesting. My colleague, just down the hall in Sociology, Terry Winemiller, teaches GIS. Then I stopped when I saw this map on the poster:

John Snow's Map of the Cholera Outbreak in London

I had JUST been talking about this map as a jumping off point for two things in my classes:

  1. In Victorian poetry and prose: This map is a good illustration of how congested and filthy and horrific city living conditions could be for the poor in mid-19th century England. The map works as a visual prompt to talk about sanitation, food, demographic changes, architecture, and more. Such knowledge can inform and change the way we look at literature and history and knowledge. Reading about London in the mid-century is a whole lot different than looking at a map that shows deaths from cholera.
  2. In professional writing for nursing: Nurses today need to embrace the history of healthcare to understand how to manage in crisis situations–anywhere they happen to be. By learning about how medical professionals of the past explored the spread of diseases, modern nurses can be ready for anything. (Of course, we read about Florence Nightingale, too, and Henri Dunant post-Battle of Solferino whose memories of that battle inspired the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention of 1864.) I do love the Victorians.

So. I stopped into Dr. Winemiller’s office to say hi and compliment him on the GIS poster. I told him what I’d been doing with the Snow map. We talked for awhile. The end result was I took a GIS class in spring 2011. I started out great, but then I got busy toward finals week with three conferences, finals, and administration for summer and fall schedules. Nuts. I was able to conceive of a project (mapping the growth of Writing Spaces), write my proposal, gather all the information I needed, even predict an outcome, but I couldn’t finish it entirely; I then tried for summer. No. But this fall, it’s coming together because the grad assistant in GIS I met when I took that class is now my collaborator. He’s like totally lightening fast with the software–I needed that since I was rusty to start and then took off a few months to do my day job.

Now, we’re getting ready to present our work at a conference on GIS. I see so many literary and writing applications for GIS. Did I mentioned I’ve subscribed to National Geographic since I was born? I love maps and globes and visual knowledge. I’ve always loved traveling because it involved maps. When I first got a phone with GPS map gizmos, I plotted a hundred places I would go to–from Key West, Florida to Homer, Alaska; from Montgomery, Alabama to Santiago, Chile. When I first discovered the extent of the travels of Frederick Tennyson (Alfred’s older brother), I wanted to map them out. Of course I did.

That I should somehow end up with a connection to geography is not surprising news to me. A student in a Dickens class I taught in 2009 mapped Little Nell’s and Oliver Twist’s journeys. I thought it was a brilliant project. She was taking a class with Dr. Winemiller at the same time she was in my Dickens class. It all comes together in a collision (or a series of collisions):

Writing instruction, writing, Victorian literature and history, geography, nursing, maps, traveling, poetry, Dickens, blogs, GIS, Steven Johnson’s two books.

You see, I’m part of a liquid network. I have slow hunches that collide with other slow hunches and unusual things happen. I’m keenly aware of the connections I have with many in several disciplines and how they are deeply important to my intellectual path. What some might even call dabbling, I call fulfillment, vast and delightful life-long learning, destiny.

And that’s why we have a network in our class–you need to go on journeys like this in the next few years. Keep your eyes and ears open to see and hear all you can. Keep your mind open to all that your educational experiences may bring to you. And keep your liquid network flowing.

National GIS Day! 16 November 2011

November 16 is National GIS Day… be there!

On this particular Wed., Nov. 16, please “attend” class by going to the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) conference proceedings in the Taylor Center (the big rooms down from the Theatre entrance). We will not have a regularly scheduled class that day, so you can attend a session/exhibit hall.

You are not in a Geography class, but GIS isn’t about geography only–it’s about a way of thinking, a way of understanding the world. Yes, it’s a system for making maps and for disseminating information graphically according to the actual world we live on/in–and you can make pretty maps–but it’s much more than pretty map making. It’s about intellectually vibrant query; it’s about creating knowledge from many pieces of a puzzle; it’s about interdisciplinary quests–the kind heroes undertake, ala Joseph Campbell, in order to fix what’s wrong with the world and save the universe (okay, that’s a bit much, but you get what I mean now!).

Attend one presentation, please, and also visit the exhibitors to pick up some information and learn a bit about GIS. We’ll be looking at GIS and applications to writing and humanities in the spring–it’s a way of thinking, a way to map thinking… and that’s part of what we’ll do in spring, mapping our own intellectual growth. But we’ll also be learning about where we are in the world (Montgomery) and what that means both visually and textually, through maps and thinking. Patterns. We’ll be exploring patterns. What’s happened in Montgomery? What texts exist? What can be mapped? How should it be mapped? What can we do about sharing what we learn? Can we share our projects from this fall and spring through maps online? How might that look?

We’ll be looking at visual rhetoric and visual arguments (through images and maps). We’ll be making maps and playing with maps. We’ll be having some interesting times in spring… You won’t need to learn GIS, just be aware of it–Nov. 16 is the perfect time. (We’ll watch a video about a 19th map soon to contextualize what mapping and learning can do for the world–you’ll love it. Fascinating stuff.)

You’ll need to blog about the GIS presentation you attend (300 words) and also about the information you gather from an exhibitor (300 words)–both by Nov. 18, please. Thanks.

I present at 3:30–I would love to have you there, if you can do it. I’ll be talking about Writing Spaces and GIS.

And enjoy this exploration… if you like, use one of Keri Smith’s exploration prompts to approach what you experience at the GIS Fest. Fun.