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:
- 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.
- 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.