On being a freshman from…somewhere

We’re three weeks into the new semester, and both of my 4-credit-hour lab science classes have probably gotten to know me better than they’d like. We’ve run an exam in both of them, a second exam in #chem101tc is much closer than that crew would like for it to be, both classes have started to get around the equipment in their labs, and people who really don’t need to be worried about their grades are starting to worry about their grades.

However, I still don’t know my class in our freshman orientation structure – the Tusculum Experience – nearly as well as I’d like.

Part of that is simply the schedule. It’s a weird schedule, so for those outside of Tusculum looking over my shoulder, let me fill you in: I see the two lab science classes all day long, twice a week, for eight weeks. There are two lab sessions scheduled per week, as opposed to one a week in a conventional semester schedule. At the end of the eight weeks we end the block and we run a second eight-week block with different two-day-a-week classes for the rest of the fall. The Tusculum Experience class I only see one afternoon a week, in a one-credit-hour setup, but I’ll see them over the full 16 weeks of the fall.

So the Tusculum Experience class and I just haven’t gotten the time together, and I haven’t gotten used to making sure they get the sequence of assignments they need, and making other arrangements, and Wednesday afternoons can just get awkward y’all.

The thing that makes our experience common are the readings, an online book called Voices of Tusculum that the good English professor Michael Bodary arranged and got assembled for us.[1] And I’ve been reading and reflecting on the class assignments out of that book as I’ve gotten my fall started.

Three of these essays, one of which has been assigned in the first three weeks of the class, are by my colleagues, two of whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well (by Jonita Ashley, currently Acting Dean of Students, and Kim Carter, who is the campus EPA Coordinator, Chemical Hygiene Officer and laboratory coordinator) and one of whom I haven’t gotten to know so well yet (David Smith, the Director of Student Support Services). And it occurs to me, reading all of these, that all these people have something in common that I don’t:

They’re all from around here. And they’re working not-at-all-far from where they grew up and where they started college.

I’ve joked – a lot – that my career is Hank Snow’s classic country song “I’ve Been Everywhere”. But it’s true. And it’s been a laundry list all over the land east of the Mississippi. I went to school, and then I did a postdoctoral research appointment at a university, and then I’ve taken teaching jobs at all kinds of places. Hey, this is the list, from high school to now:

Hilliard Middle/Senior High School (Hilliard, Florida)
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Indiana)
The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
University of Alabama-Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama)
Middle Georgia College (Cochran, Georgia)
Shorter College (Rome, Georgia)
Virginia Intermont College (Bristol, Virginia)
Tennessee Technological University (Cookeville, Tennessee)
Tusculum College (Greeneville, Tennessee)

That’s a list, y’all.

And it was a pretty natural list. I grew up in Hilliard, Florida, but my mother was raised in Coweta County, Georgia and her family settled all over the Atlanta area. My father was raised in Berea, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, and my grandfather actually graduated with his Doctor of Dental Science from Ohio State, almost exactly sixty years before I got my Ph.D. from Ohio State. My uncle on Dad’s side went to Texas, and there are Pearsons in Ohio, Texas, and Florida – with others scattered about.

I love the Central Appalachians, and I moved to Tusculum very deliberately to return to this area. But I’m not from here. And what’s more, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with being from somewhere. Even that small town in Florida where I grew up was one that had a lot of families that spent their entire lives there. Even spending sixteen years of my life there, I never completely belonged, because I had a father who the Federal Government brought in to work at that air traffic control center in town.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing. It’s a thing. It’s a thing that has made leaving a lot easier, in my life, than it would be for a lot of others. And it’s made my emotions about places are lot more even-keeled than they otherwise would be (even though I can be a super-emotional man). But I see a lot of the lifelong relationships that people have in a small town, and the depth of investment, and I feel like I’ve missed something that is exceptionally special there.

It’s a thing I don’t think I know about a lot of my freshmen yet. I still remember the first Physical Science student who followed me – and I saw he was from Ware County, Georgia and hey I know where you’re from, man, and it ain’t near here! But that’s a reality of being at a place that recruits for the sports.

I wasn’t in for the sports. I just wasn’t connected to that small town, once upon a time, and that school in Indiana that wanted me around was all kinds of appealing (and I was choosing between the school in Indiana and – alternate history alert – the school in New Mexico. I wanted out of North Florida, y’all.) There was difficulty and awkwardness of all of a sudden being in this place where I knew nobody and it felt like they were all from more sophisticated places than Hilliard, Florida (they weren’t, but it felt like they were) and all kinds of adaptation was involved.

I think I’m going to keep telling that story as this fall goes forward, and I get to know a group of freshmen who are going through a version of what I went through, and what Dr. Ashley and Ms. Carter and Dr. Smith went through.

But right now, I want to know where are the freshmen of this place are from. Are they dealing with the challenges of all the family and friends being close enough to want you at home, or the challenges of having all your family and friends so far away?

Do they hope to have a list of places as long as mine is – or maybe even longer, or maybe from places farther afield than just “east of the Mississippi” – or do they hope to just have a short list of places around East Tennessee?

Part of the joy of doing what I do for a living is I get to hear these voices. Not polished voices, and not experienced voices. But voices with experiences of their own, and stories of their own to tell. I will never tire of hearing the stories.

[1] Y’know, I promised Bodary a chapter for this Voices of Tusculum thing. I think he’s still a bit salty at me that I didn’t deliver. Next year, man…

How a molecular biophysicist gets hyped for a solar eclipse

(1) Not well. Not well at all. I’m only posting one pre-eclipse post, and it’s less than 24 hours until peak eclipse in Greeneville, Tennessee.

(2) Of course, I might not even be making this post at all if I wasn’t teaching a physical science course to non-majors, and if I wasn’t making some early ideas on astronomy wasn’t a key part of the thing. Shout-out to #nsci105. I don’t even know if the youth says “shout-out” anymore.

(3) Of course, I kind of wanted to make such an eclipse post to be some sort of hot take about the pointlessness of eclipse glasses, and Lifehacker just straight-up stole that hot take from me.

I was in middle school the last time a major solar eclipse passed over my hometown. Some teachers supplied us with glasses and others helped us build viewers from cereal boxes, and we went outside for the big moment. It was okay, I guess. But when I got home, my mother told me how she saw the eclipse.

She told me that she stepped outside with her co-workers, and ended up sitting by a tree. And she noticed the shadow of its leaves on the ground. Everywhere there was a little gap between the leaves, each spot of light was in the same crescent shape as the eclipsed sun.

Curses to Gizmodo Media! Curses to them!

But dang it, everybody’s going to be having video of the Sun before the event happens in Tennessee AND after the event happens in Tennessee. There is one moon. There is one sun.

There are a ton of different trees around, and a ton of different shadow patterns possible. Diffraction of light with such a faraway light source that is being obstructed so completely will make for some wild shadows.

And uniqueness in the shadows EVERYWHERE.

Get you some pinhole camera action going and have some fun.

My favorite guide to pinhole camera construction is Emily Lakdawalla’s blogging for the Planetary Society, and CaLisa Lee’s video does the job super well too. Yeah, it’s targeted for kids. But I’ll do the same stuff too.

There are other sources for eclipse projection from the American Astronomical Society, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and good friends at the Upper Cumberland Regional Science Initiative. The Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post wrote about this, too.

(Late addition: the alpha physics blogger, Chad Orzel of Union College in New York, also wrote a low-tech pinhole camera optics explainer. I’ll always link when Orzel explains something, even if I have to edit the post after the fact to do it.)

I’ve been joking that I’m going to go without eclipse glasses; that’s a lie, I’ll totally have a pair on me. But I am going to have a ton of small cards for pinhole cameras, and I’m going to have at least one surface for watching the shadows come through them.

(4) In addition, NASA has a little smartphone app I’m just learning about called Globe Explorer (part of “an international citizen science initiative to understand our global environment”), and they’re wanting data tomorrow during the eclipse. It can be as simple as taking pictures of clouds to recording reliable temperatures. But it’s accessible to all. If the idea of being a citizen data-recorder appeals to you, download the thing and join in.

(5) I’m not trying to get on the road and travel through eclipse traffic (however eclipse traffic proves to be) while my teaching load is slightly nutty. I’m staying in Greeneville, even though I’m not going to get 100% totality. I have dear friends at Pellissippi State (one dean in particular) who will be Tailgating in Totality, and my old colleagues at Tennessee Tech are throwing a full Totality Awesome Eclipse Fest. (Click through that page and you can see explanations from my department chair at Tech, Steve Robinson, who’s way better explaining this stuff than I am.)

I’m disappointing all my friends equally by staying put, which is maximum fairness for all concerned.

(6) But I am the Eclipse Expert for the Tusculum event (sponsored by the United Way of Greene County, thanks you guys) at Pioneer Stadium, starting at 2:00 PM. And, if NBC News is to be believed…

…I am personally contributing to, and even leading, a mass loss of productivity at Tusculum College.

If you’re in the neighborhood (and not driving pell-mell to reach totality), come be unproductive with me.


Starting to call time on Facebook

(Shared simultaneously to my Facebook news feed, and this will take a place atop that feed for the foreseeable future.)

So. I think it’s been apparent I’ve been starting the long goodbye to Facebook for a while. Let’s make it official.

I’ve been on FB for what clears eleven years at this point. It’s mostly been good. I’ve been able to reconnect to a host of people and engage in conversations with people across the country. The power behind any technology of this sort, to me, is the capacity to extend our human connections. There are points when, as I talked about this place in the past, I might have sounded very Zuckerberg-like when describing the power and potential of this thing.

I really don’t even think I need to tell you what’s changed about Facebook. Always and forever, I’m going to wish one and only one thing: that the people in charge of these wonderful social networks that have turned up over the course of the last decade haven’t largely sold out to Wall Street. Caring about stock value means you will do everything you can to jack up the advertising dollars and if that means that real, human engagement takes a back seat, so be it. That damage has been steady and ongoing.

I will tell you what has gradually changed for me, and what I honestly feel like has run its course: the broadcast mentality I’ve taken towards social media, and Facebook in particular. My friends network on this thing got large enough at one point that I was friends with people I didn’t genuinely know, and that didn’t want to get to know me. If you feel like what you say can have influence and be positive, well, hey, that’s good news. There was a spell when I could share a random news article and get 100 likes on it and get serious, thoughtful conversation going in the comments, with a level of depth that never reached flame war or trolling status. That engagement was always what I was most grateful for. That engagement only happens in the rarest of circumstances now.

And I honestly think that’s part of Facebook’s design, as they more and more actively serve in a news feed what you “want” to see and prevent you from having control. The effectiveness of my own sharing on Facebook has dropped off the map. There was a time when I’d share a thing on Facebook and Twitter and it would get hundreds of views from Facebook and tens of views from Twitter. That ratio has now completely flipped, as faithful friends on Twitter share and reshare my stuff and shares on Facebook fall into a black hole. When Twitter has always been more effective in putting my stuff in front of new people outside my circle of friends anyway, I look at Facebook putting the kibosh on my sharing even with my friends and say “y’know, you really don’t care about me; what’s the point?”

For now, the conversation is going to continue on Twitter. For now. I don’t even really feel like Twitter is a long-term solution (and this goes beyond the standard concerns about safety and harassment; for crying out loud, the service has been murmuring about pushing a monthly $99 subscription fee to boost “influencer” timelines; if that happens, they’ll kill their own golden goose and wreck the benefit I take from them besides). But it’s the solution right now that gives me a critical mass of people I’m talking to, and in many ways it’s been the social network that’s enabled the transformation of my scholarship and my professional life over the course of the past few years. I’m “having a think” (to steal Kate Bowles’ phrase) about Mastodon and conversation that’s more authentic. That may not even be a long-term solution either, although I’m as positive about Mastodon as I have been about any social media since that group of us at Shorter first got online in 2006. I’ve also turned up on Instagram and I’m sharing things every now and again over there, although my preferred mode of communication is words and not pictures. And chuckpearson.wordpress.com does exist and will get stuff posted to it from time to time; if ever there’s major news in my world, it will appear there.

(No, I’m not on Snapchat, and I still don’t see the point.)

And this is a slow goodbye. There are still a host of people I only see on this thing and nowhere else. There are quizbowl communities where Facebook is my primary mode of communication, so I won’t disappear entirely. I use Facebook Messenger extensively, and honestly at least that isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future. This profile will remain visible; things can be shared with me, I’ll still review, I may even comment on a thing you post every now and again; but the buffer has been shut down and the sharing of things on this profile page will be rare.

Nobody (but Facebook themselves) pushed me to this point. If you have any fear that you’ve offended me or put me out in any way, don’t. I’ve decided that the time I spend on Facebook can be better spent in other ways. That’s all.

Messages are still open; don’t ever hesitate to say “hi.” But I’ll be on your news feeds less and less for a while.

Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard #5 – Mr. Mister

Click through to hear tracks from the album and ordering information from richardpagemusic.com.

This is a (very long-term) series of posts on songs that are exceptionally obscure, and that even most serious music fans will never have heard and that deserve more exposure.

Of all the bands that could ever appear on such a list, Mr. Mister is a terribly unlikely name. Mr. Mister had one of the iconic albums of the 80’s, Welcome To The Real World, which spawned two #1 singles: the slow-dance standard “Broken Wings” and the positive-pop anthem “Kyrie”. And while Go On… didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies, it had an MTV-ready single (“Something Real”, which snuck onto the Billboard Top 30) and a standout movie’s title track (“Stand and Deliver”, also notable for appearing in a Hilliard Middle/Senior High School yearbook as a certain 1989 senior’s favorite song).

So “No Words To Say”, which turned out to be the first and only Mr. Mister song with lyrics by Richard Page alone, working without his longtime collaborator John Lang, is a Famous Song You’ve Never Heard because of the story of Mr. Mister’s follow-up to Go On….

If you were even aware that Go On… existed at all, you might be surprised by the existence of another Mr. Mister album. And you should be, unless you’ve paid the closest of attention. Because it was recorded. And then RCA never released it.

Andre Salles, of the Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. blog, wrote what’s in my mind the definitive ode to Mr. Mister’s late career seven years ago. His emotions about Go On… very neatly mirror my own; I’ve never lost my affection for the crisp opening tones of “Stand And Deliver”, for the yearning behind “Healing Waters” and “The Border”, for the unspoken stories in the textures of “Dust,” and for the determination in every word of “Something Real.”

But that story is comparatively known.

 The next part of the story – of Steve Farris’ departure, of the work the remaining three members did to work out a serious artistic step beyond Go On…, of the changes in the recording industry under the band’s feet, and of RCA’s ultimate rejection of the album breaking up the band, remained the stuff of fan rumor for the longest time. Salles even writes his own story of his exploration of that next step not by hearing an official release of Pull, the lost Mr. Mister album, but by tracking down and downloading bootleg copies of the songs that had leaked from RCA and been dubbed and redubbed.

The remastered and offical album was finally released in November 2010 on frontman Richard Page’s Little Dume Recordings, to the delight of die-hard fans and very few others. And ultimately, most observers – up to and including the members of the band themselves – understood why RCA didn’t hear a commercially viable album. The songs were much darker, from time to time they veered into pop/jazz fusion, and the lyrics were very challenging. Even the song the band called “son of Broken Wings”, “Waiting In My Dreams”, didn’t speak of hope but of hopelessness and loneliness, with the only outlet being the dreamlife – “when I close my eyes, you’re all I see…the only time you’re next to me.” The repeated “Kyrie Eleison” from Welcome To The Real World was a hopeful Greek prayer that any youth group leader could use; the lyrics of Pull’s “Lifetime” recalled Gabriel García Márquez’ Love In The Time Of Cholera, which (while hopeful over the long haul) didn’t get talked about near as much in church when I was growing up.

But the challenge is worth the reward, and like so much in the music industry in the 90’s, a label’s failure to hear the prospect of immediate sales robbed the musicians of a chance to share a fully realized piece of art with the world. There wasn’t a vision for how a unique album with a famous name behind it could find its audience. And how a uniquely challenging message could resonate.

And that message was needed, and still is needed.


Here is Richard Page, describing what he was attempting to convey with “No Words To Say”:

I’d collaborated with John Lang for years and years on lyrics, but that song was one of the first I’d took on myself to write. It was kind of a seminal moment for me. Plus, it was a recollection of my growing up in the deep South in the ’50s with the civil rights movement and all the chaos, from a kid’s point of view…

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was there in Montgomery, Alabama, and they were marching and it was in the news all the time. I played pop warner football with George Wallace, Jr. My best friend across the street – his father was rumored to be a high official in the KKK. White and black drinking fountains and restrooms and things like that.

And yet, we had a maid – a black woman – who was so beautiful and kind. My mother worked, and this woman was with me and my siblings all the time, she was part of the family. From a kid’s point of view, again, why would anybody hate anybody because of their color? But more importantly, why didn’t people who knew better speak out? That’s what I achieved as an adult, looking back – where were the adults going, “This is wrong, we have to change this”? There weren’t very many – of course there were a few – but that’s where the song came from.

And that’s not to say I’m above any of the accusations I’m throwing either. We all carry with us a lot of prejudices and they’re unconscious, many of them. And again, not rocking the boat is more important than getting the truth for a lot of us.

What’s striking about “No Words To Say”, beyond the stark and evocative lyrics, is Page’s phrasing of them. For somebody who’s been accused of having a vanilla voice and a bland pop sensibility, Page weaves these words through the song in a fashion that’s almost more reminiscent of spoken-word than singing:

There were those who know the tables would turn
Running out into the burning streets
And hoping to hear the words
Of a prophet or a sage who might come along
And straighten out the mess they had made
The injustice and cruelty by their own hands
Of the ones of another shade

Page hears a the sound of protest vividly, the language of the unheard – “growing sweeter and more murderous all at once” – and longs for one of the adults in his very white life to lead with integrity, instead of pretending like everything is OK and taking advantage of the benefits of their privilege. Too many lived their lives quietly, silently.

It doesn’t strike the ear like a first tentative effort at solo lyricism. It strikes the ear as a masterwork.

When I finally heard it for the first time in 2010, Pull offered closure – the conclusion of the progression that the path from Welcome To The Real World to Go On… marked. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more Pull has become its own entity, and an album I go to in its own right, its own work of art.

And the song “No Words To Say” has challenged me more and more with each passing year. It becomes clearer and clearer with each passing day that whatever progress we’d allowed ourselves to believe had been made in hearing every voice and giving value to every life was an illusion, that the positive steps that had been taken can just as easily be walked back. The ways of change continue to be peculiar. People are still trying to hide their eyes.

Richard Page, it turns out, spoke the prophetic words he wrote about. They are words we still need to hear, perhaps now more than ever. And the mess we have made will require a lifetime’s of work to straighten out.

Patch Twenty-One: Just Listen

This is a contribution to the Fleming College Learning and Design Support Team‘s Open Faculty Patchbook, an open text for faculty getting a sense for practical pedagogy for their classrooms. Empathy has been front and center in my mind all year long, and adjusting to the intensity of the student contact in the move from the regional university back to the small college has made many of these thoughts more urgent.

One thing I realized in the process of making this move is that I had a philosophy of teaching that was just sitting there, relatively dormant. And I had a very intense teaching experience that had me fairly intensely studying how student learning works best – and that was at odds with some of the things in that philosophy document.

What I realized, about a third of the way through writing this, was that I was rewriting my philosophy of teaching.

So this is one of my more serious efforts. Acknowledgements at the end, but again, thanks to Terry Greene and the good people at Fleming for the opportunity to contribute.

The Open Faculty Patchbook

Empathy and Science Pedagogy

By Chuck Pearson, Tusculum College, Tennessee

I honestly don’t remember the point in my teaching career when I realized how hard mathematics was for most of my students.

It’s not that I’ve ever been especially brilliant at mathematics. Sure, I can do a great deal of number crunching in my head without a second effort. But when the vector calculus or the differential equations got too sophisticated for my calculations in my own graduate research, I just looked for somebody else’s software or algorithm and twisted the mess out of it to make it do what I wanted it to do. I could handle the rudimentary stuff. I was horrible at setting up any integral but the simplest, for crying out loud. I knew the guys in my discipline who could handle the hard stuff and who were on another plane, and I wasn’t one of…

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“Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole”

I’ve got a lot of this year that I still haven’t dealt with.

I heard this song for the first time this week.

Maybe this is as good a place as any to start.


There’s an answer here if I look hard enough
There’s a reason why I always reach for the harder stuff
It wasn’t my daddy’s way; he was down in the mines all day
I know he wanted more than mouths to feed and bills to pay

I think the most exasperating thing about rural America is the hopelessness where there should be a wealth of hope.

I don’t think the people here are any different than the people anywhere else in the world in terms of their talents. I know I’ve taught people in these small colleges, I’ve come across people running around volunteering in these middle schools and high schools, who are blindingly brilliant and who don’t deserve to have anybody tell them anything about how limited their options are.

I think the people are are different, in so many ways superior, to people in other parts of the world in terms of their labor. So many places in Central Appalachia shouldn’t even be livable. So many of these cities are literally carved out of the mountains. Part of what I think feeds into the mythology and romance surrounding the industry of this place is the great human endeavor of going into hard, brutal land and extracting the resources necessary to make life work. Regardless of what you think about its sustainability, just consider how many people poured how much blood and sweat into making life here possible.

I don’t know about you. I get a little bit of awe, doubly so as a one-time 6-foot-2, 148-pound weakling who couldn’t dream of that much physical graft in my life.

The people of this place should be looking at hard times considering how much is possible, what next great big thing could be built, what the next path is to making this place great. And yet somehow, hope’s been taken away from them.

You can blame Washington. You can blame Nashville or Richmond or Frankfort. You can even blame college professors like me for corrupting the kids. Or, if you take a different slant, you can blame the companies that set themselves up as protectors and then laid their workers off without warning, changing their names and sprucing up an image of profitability for Wall Street.

It doesn’t change the fact that Daddy still feels like he was stuck with that mining job, that he didn’t have a way to chase his ambitions. And it still doesn’t change the fact that there won’t be a mining job for his son, and his son doesn’t know what he can do without it.

Well, somebody give him something to do.


I ain’t cut out for war, unless I know what I’m fighting for
And there’s nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores
Ain’t much money in the old-time mandolin
So I cash my check and I drink ’til I’m on my ass again

That right there is the single thing that rural America is worst at.

First off, there sure ought to be more money in the old-time mandolin. The music is far and away the best part of the cultural heritage of this place. There is this little thing that happens on and around State Street in Bristol, TN/VA (“A Good Place To Live“) called the Rhythm and Roots Reunion. It is a wonderful thing. (Seriously. Dwight Yoakam, Judah & The Lion, and Amanda Shires – who just so happens to be playing that fiddle up there, and singing those harmonies) are playing it this year, and I’m not all the way through the headliners. If you can, go.) It’s not nearly as well known as it should be. There aren’t nearly as many Rhythm and Roots Reunions as there should be, or outlets to play the traditional and Americana music that Bristol made famous.

The counterpoint to the tremendous industry and graft of this place is the disdain for the arts. Man, that mandolin might sound awfully good, but you and I both know you’ll never make a living playing it. And I don’t care how good that painting is, or how good you were in that play, why you think that’s a substitute for a good, honest job is beyond me. And who thinks they can actually make a movie in East Tennessee, anyway? That’s just foolish thinking. Get back to work.

Okay, you can get back to school. Just as long as you get to work straight after.

What, you keep putting in applications and you can’t get hired? Always knew you were a good-for-nothing hippie. Not my problem.

So many students I’ve had with so many talents simply don’t believe it because those talents have been talked down by so many people for so much of their lives. And I’m being good and not even mentioning that wonderful, elegant art we call mathematics. But if you believe the student who wanted to immerse herself in mathematics didn’t get talked down as well, you don’t know rural America at all.

We help to create the next generation’s hopelessness, and then we complain that they don’t listen or value what we have to say.

And we wonder why they keep finding their way to a bottle. Or some other, stronger drug.


Remember when we could see the mountain’s peak?
The sparkle off the amphibole?
Like a giant golden eagle’s beak
Now they say no one wants the coal

(Dadgummit, Isbell, using the fifty-cent words.)

We created this hopelessness through all kinds of decisions, and we didn’t just create it individually. We created it as a society.

I can marvel at all the graft and all the effort it took to make this place livable, and in their heyday, these cities must have been something. But all that industry – y’know, I won’t even say it destroyed the environment. I didn’t move here until 2011. The environment has always been something to see. But it sure changed the environment; it sure diminished the environment.

Every decision is one step farther along to taking natural beauty and resource and making it subservient to our needs. And then not really our needs; our whims.

Because this is the awful part: we do all this work to make the places livable, and then we don’t give a thought to sustaining that livability. We build up this wonderful downtown and then we let all the stores close and we create a blighted ghost town. We build the grocery store and the department store and then the retail monster comes to town and builds a bigger and better grocery and department supercenter just a few miles outside of town, and then we all go to the bigger and better and let the grocery store and department store in town die out. We allow big real estate companies to buy up land and make deals with the city government on one side of the state line to compete with that real estate company buying up land and making deals with the city government on the other side of the state line and then the county government getting revenue from the out of town supercenter gets mad and goes in cahoots with a different real estate company and we get retail monsters asking for more money than exists in the town while the small-scale, sustainable businesses in town get no attention and no foot traffic and shut down.

All the while the revenue to the cities dries up because the deals they cut allowed the real estate companies – none of which are actually in the region, mind you – to take them to the cleaners.

All of this is hypothetical, of course. None of it based on current events. At all.

No one wants the coal. No one wants the music. No one wants the simple, stable community.

No one even wants the churches anymore; check all the empty pews on Sunday morning if you doubt. Maybe, if you find the right place, all the pews will be empty because the church literally ran out of warm bodies to keep it running.

Maybe they got old and died. Maybe there wasn’t anything for them here and they just moved on.

We tore the environment apart to build all this – and we’re letting what we built rot.


I thought about moving away, but what would my mama say?
Well, I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day
So as soon as the sun goes down I find my way to the Mustang Lounge
And if you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town

So the children who grow up here grow up without hope.

And they grow up bound to the hopeless place.

Part of the thing that drives how people’s talents get talked down is fear. Because if they’re really that talented, they sure won’t stay here. There’s nothing here for them.

This isn’t just theoretical. There is a growing body of scholarship that deals with the difficulties that first-generation Appalachian college students deal with, and the family bond is at the core of so much of that work. Parents simply don’t know what their children are getting out of that college, and they might not care that much. Students feel a weight of pressure from both directions – to succeed and to make their family proud and then move away and leave their family alone? Or to simply not try and return home and keep the family together but wonder what might have been?

“Not try” is an option that gets taken very seriously. Retention difficulties are rampant among colleges and universities in the Central Appalachians. Many of those difficulties aren’t tied to the students’ struggle to adapt to college, or even their likelihood of success, but simply to the unbreakable bond to family that gives the obligation to return home and care for their families. That’s true even if those families don’t actually need that support. But it’s especially true if they do.

The emotional burden that comes with having opportunity and leaving that opportunity on the table in the name of your family is immense. I’m a child of late-20th-century government employee privilege; I can’t relate to that burden in the slightest. It’s taken me more than a minute to realize exactly how real and tangible and mammoth that burden is.

When people don’t deal with day-to-day living in healthy ways, there might be a reason.


Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole

And there’s the gutpunch. Over and over again. And maybe it does. Maybe it just does.

Here’s the crazy thing about me. I took that job at Virginia Intermont College. I was only in that job for three years. I discovered every amazing thing and every dark corner of Bristol, Virginia. I discovered the pain and the wonder of working in this place. The college closed down.

I came back.

I came to a different institution, in a different city to discover, with different amazing things and different dark corners, and yet the same overriding motivation: to talk to the talented people of this place and to tell them why they had reasons to hope. I couldn’t let go of the talented people I knew from the last go-round, but I also know that there are plenty of new talented people to get to know.

I’ve been a part of a conversation this month, under the hashtag #digciz, surrounding the ways we engage online – and, this week, the conversation has shifted (especially for me) into dealing with not just our online places, but the places where we live as well. It especially has resonated with me in addressing this place where I’ve landed that is not the place of my birth and is not the place where I was raised – but the place that has, in some ways despite itself, become my home. I am a citizen of Greene County, Tennessee, and I intend to be a citizen of Greene County, Tennessee for the foreseeable future; this was a move of choice and a move to bring stability to a life that has most certainly not been.

I’m stirred to reflection in part by the workshop I attended last week at Emory and Henry College, the Appalachian College Association‘s Teaching and Learning Institute, where I was around brilliant faculty colleagues who deal with the stresses of this region and our students within it in creative ways at their own institutions, day-in and day-out. I’m always grateful for the privilege of engaging with the faculty of the ACA institutions, because they teach me so much and they give so much of themselves for institutions that can’t give a lot in return.

But remarkably, I’m also stirred to reflection by professors in Australia and Egypt, people who I get to talk to online and who have become the deepest of friends. You learn, after a time, that all these stresses you see in rural America aren’t specific to rural America at all. There are unique contours that are a part of this specific place, but there are bigger themes to these struggles that are unique to nothing more and nothing less than our humanity.

If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.


The new album by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, is out today. I got it overnight; I already had the pre-order set up on my newfangled-and-yet-already-outdated online music-for-purchase scheme. I got the song “Cumberland Gap” into all my playlists already, and I’m already playing it to death.

Isbell’s own story has so much to say about growing up in rural America (Northwest Alabama, in his case) and struggling to find hope. (Anthony Mason’s interview and feature on Isbell is eight minutes worth watching.) That struggle is throughout the words of the album – the recognition of the talents around him, the structures that keep that talent suppressed (and even oppressed), and the belief that a better world still can be had. Isbell is widely acclaimed as one of the best lyricists we have working today, and while it’s still early days to be considering, these may be some of his best words ever – yes, better than even Southeastern, his critically acclaimed breakthrough. These words certainly speak more directly to me than anything he’s done.

I’m listening to a song called “Anxiety” as I finish this up.

Watching the sunrise slash through the blinds
Dust in the room hovers over mine
Lying here in silence, wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream
And oh, I’m a lucky man today, but so afraid that time will take it all from me
Anxiety – how do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing

I think the most exasperating thing about rural America is the hopelessness where there should be a wealth of hope. We are living through a time of tremendous evolution and promise. We are living through a time of oppressive change and terror. There is so much history, so many incredible people, such a wealth of reasons to wonder. There is so much poverty, so many dysfunctional relationships, such a wealth of reasons to fear.

We have to be the people who speak against the fear.