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…

I am composing this post in front of my Tusculum Experience class.

This is the place where I’m talking about how great my Tusculum Experience class is.

They’re really quite amazing, y’all.

I also realized that I never took a selfie with the group last week.

So now that’s done.

(not pictured: a lot of athletes who sit stage left and who were just over it, and not unfairly so)

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. It kept a place atop that feed for about 9 months. I use the thing again, but only to promote quiz bowl stuff and self-promote, which lately have been one and the same.)

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.

Graduation day, circa May 6, 2017

Originally a post on the Facebook wall from May 6, 2017. Edited now a year after the fact to say: these words still resonate, and I feel all the same things, and more.

Graduation day feels as weird today as it ever has, for me.

I’ll be there at Tusculum today, and please say hi. But understand if I’m a bit far away.

One of the neatest groups of students that I had was the honors seminar I taught in Fall of 2013 at Virginia Intermont College. It was super-timely – our topic started out as standardized testing (our books were Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test and Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System) but it quickly shifted into talking about what we expect out of education and what the future of education should be. At one point I envisioned it as a start to those students’ careers and an encouragement for them to be critical as they went through education, but it turned into a set of very real lessons on the days that were to come.

If some people had cared a bit more about the fate and future of our institutions than the money that was or wasn’t somewhere, the freshmen in that seminar would have been graduating from Virginia Intermont College today.

Many of them are graduating – but from institutions far and wide, in circumstances that have been fraught. At least one already completed her degree; a couple of others have a way to go, and a couple I’ve just completely lost track of, and it kills me.

On the one hand, that group was where my work at Virginia Intermont was just getting started. On the other, it was the group I had to shepherd out the door. There are so many things about VI’s end that break my heart, but the thought what that group would have become and of the continuity they could have provided for the college’s next chapter is the one thing I can’t get over, the one thing that is the cruelest.

As if that wasn’t enough to be tearing at my heart, the end of VI tossed me into a completely different situation at Tennessee Tech, one that was by its very definition “temporary” but with relationships with students that were every bit as meaningful.

I’ve seen news of med school and dental school and pharmacy school and every kind of professional school admissions clogging my social media feeds these past few days, and it’s wonderful, but it’s also very melancholy. So much of the circumstances at Tech kept me from building the kinds of relationships with students that I had built other places. I was able to catch glimpses of students here and there, but not see the full person develop. It was a deeply frustrating environment to work in, simply because of its size; some people adapt well and work well in that environment, and that’s a wonderful thing. I never did.

That doesn’t make the heartache for the people who make up that wonderful community in Cookeville any less real, though. For all my difficulty fitting in to that community (and for all the burden from the circumstances that put me in that community in the first place), Tennessee Technological University is one of our best. There’s far more good that happens there than bad. The people who make that place go are among our best educators and scholars, and I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.

And the students who are graduating from Tech today are nothing short of remarkable. So many who are so incredibly talented, and who are so well equipped for the next stage of their lives. I’m incredibly proud of them.

I knew as 2016 was winding down that if the opportunity presented itself, I needed to be back in a small college setting and I needed to be investing the time getting to know the small place and the individuals that make up the community. That’s why I’m here. I’m very grateful for that. I’m even more grateful that place is East Tennessee, in this part of the country I love dearly. I know there are going to be far happier graduation days ahead.

In another circumstance, I’d list the names of graduates who I knew who I was grateful for; I’ve done that on a day like to day in the past. But I’d be typing forever, and I’d be forgetting a LOT of people who don’t need to have their accomplishments minimized.

This will have to do.

Graduates: I love you, and I’m so proud of you. I love you, and we need your talents so desperately. I love you, and I believe you will make a better future for us.


The very first tweet I woke up to in the four-word stories posted for #Antigonish2 today knocked me just a tiny bit sideways:

…and they mean it.

It resonated for any number of reasons.

This Antigonish 2.0 project that Bonnie Stewart has started up has rapidly become very near and dear to my heart, for no greater and no lesser reason (for the moment) than the hope that we can begin to build deeper, more accountable community among all of us, locally and globally, and use that community to build a more functional and positive world. This is the moment in my life when my own confidence in the institutions around me snaps, and while I’m not going to quit and become a hermit in the mountains, I’m going to realize that what is in existence around me is broken and there is a need to build something new, and there are plenty of people who are brilliant helpers who don’t look like what I’ve always been around and don’t believe the same things I was taught to believe and you know what it just doesn’t matter let’s get to work.

Laura, who tweeted that lovely thing, along with Kate and Tanya, who got tagged alongside me, have been people I’ve been sharing conversation with on a different social media platform who have given me opportunity to practice listening to other voices and to practice speaking more positively and more productively and giving up all kinds of assumptions. Laura, in particular, has been so wonderful and affirming to me personally, and I’ll assume I’ve been at least reasonably kind back to her given that I received such a wonderful little tag in tribute. Much of the sweetness of this spring hasn’t been found in the usual spaces, but within this new community that has sprung up, in fits and starts.

Of course, no matter how sweet a new community is, the sentiment is nothing new. We all want to be known, we all want to know people care about how we’re doing, we all want to know that the sentiments are real and not faked. We all hear people ask things like “how’ve you been, friend?” all the time. That’s not the part that hits your heart.

“…and they mean it.” That’s the hope. That’s the prayer.

And that’s what takes me back to SURF.

It’s a little bit stunning that I’ve not told the story in this space of showing up at a thing called SURFchurch in Bristol, Tennessee and finding myself welcomed welcomed. Here, have a short version: When I interviewed for the job at Virginia Intermont, in an odd circumstance that had to fit around the schedule of a Monday-Friday summer course, only one student sat in on the teaching demonstration, a kind young woman named Kayla. I made a joke or three about recruiting her to the sciences, but she had a very clear vision for her academic path, and a very deep passion for photography that kind of sounded more like a calling than a vision. Woo, I get the job, woo, I move to Bristol, woo, I start looking for churches and I start collecting a set of options and I happen to drive down a side road and see a small yard sign for SURFchurch and I wonder what in the world a SURFchurch is doing in Central Appalachia and show up one Sunday morning anyway and walk in the door and literally the first person I see is this Kayla.

These are the points that, in evangelical universe, we call “God moments”.

There were quite a few more college students (including students I would have in my own classes, soon enough) at this place, and the pastor, Matt Cross, turned out to be a Virginia Intermont alum, and there was a measure more authenticity in the relationships there immediately than there was at anyplace else I visited in Bristol, and well that’s going to be the church hunt sorted then.

Everybody at SURF was very good to me for the three years I was in Bristol, and while I was riding the roller-coaster that went from watching the colleagues from the old job broken up and scattered to the winds from afar to watching the situation at the new job steadily and completely deteriorate to nothing, I knew I had a refuge. And that pastor gave me a space to rest alongside the students I loved, and repeated to all of us four words that sustained the community and made the fellowship as genuine and authentic as anyplace I’ve ever been.

And we, in turn, learned to repeat those words to one another. Of course the students repeated those words; they could be easily abbreviated, shared on social media as a badge, turned into a slogan or a hashtag. #LYMI. But they could also be spoken. The “I”‘s in those declarative statements were implied, after all, so they could just roll off the tongue as cadence. The first two words were the sentiment, so often spoken thoughtlessly; but the second two words were the commitment, the reality that I couldn’t just say the words and let them rest halfway. I had to follow through.

I found myself saying these words to those same students, from the professor’s side of the fence. And of course I’d shown love to the students I’d had before, I’d given of myself. But this statement was the next step. It was taking that love and turning it into discipline, into a willingness to step outside of my authority and stand alongside them, to share in their hurts and fears, to encourage and to speak hope and promise, to simply listen and hear.

Of course it’s easiest to make that statement as something of an in-joke, because it’s associated with a church and it is shared with believers and it is our badge and all. But over time you don’t just want to share it with them. And in my role, I’m providing this support not just to my fellow believers anymore; I left that conservative-evangelical school in 2011, after all. I have students who don’t believe and who are very open about it, despite Virginia Intermont’s historic Baptist affiliation. That same love needs to be available to them at all. And it doesn’t just need to be spoken. It needs to be followed with action.

When the path takes you, between July of 2011 and August of 2017, from Rome, Georgia to Bristol, Virginia to Cookeville, Tennessee to Greeneville, Tennessee, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University to Tusculum College, there is nothing about that action that is easy and straightforward. You find the action that speaks to the people around you only to have to start and learn new people and start all over again. Community isn’t an automatic; you don’t just show up and find yourself belonging. Trust has to be earned, and there is work to be done just to allow your voice a hearing.

But that doesn’t change the commitment, and that doesn’t change the discipline.

Even as I was discovering that the clock was ticking on the job I hoped would be for a career, I was still facing the necessity of loving my campus throughout every up and down. Even as I was struggling mightily to adapt to a place that was ten times as large as anywhere I’d worked before and found myself drowning in the crush of people (and yes, you can drown in the crush of people in Cookeville, Tennessee), I knew I was surrounded by people who needed love and I needed to be patient and show it. The work of love is necessary, and never more necessary than in a time like this.

So I’ll ask forgiveness for the belief that a lifetime of learning and discipleship and good old-fashioned hard knocks are leading me to this place, and to these people, and to this work of community-building. And no matter how hard the times get, to the repetition of gratitude for the ears that I’ve had in this time, ears in Greeneville and in Cookeville and in Bristol and in Rome, ears in Fredericksburg and in Richmond and in Wollongong and in Guadalajara and in Charlottetown and in Chichester, and maybe even an ear or two back home on the edge of that old swamp in Hilliard, Florida. So many people have offered me such genuine friendship, and even a dose of genuine ministry. They sustain me, and allow me to do the day-to-day work with these wonderful students, and prepare me to serve beyond the city limits and beyond the state line into the world beyond.

And I’ll ask forgiveness of Matt and Sherry and the people of SURFchurch, but something tells me that they won’t be bothered if I share a little bit of that fellowship with the people of Antigonish 2.0.

Community in four words.

Love you; mean it.

One more meaning of open

This post, and all others with the “openlearning” tag, are part of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC that is ongoing under the auspices of the AAC&U. However, none of these posts are going be very neat reflections on the week’s events and readings, and I’m limiting myself to a short amount of time to compose them and leave them in an attempt to redevelop a discipline of blog writing. We will see where this takes us.

I was reminded a little more than a year ago of what I’ve always wanted “open” to mean in my classes.

I was getting to know a couple of pretty nifty football players in my physics classes at Tennessee Tech in Fall 2015, and was reveling in getting to further my bit of football nerd with guys who played. I remember thinking that this was going to be a bit of fun the afternoon the football player in my PHYS 2020 section dropped by the office to ask a couple of questions about the first exam and the conversation turned towards the end to his high school teammate who was quarterbacking the Iowa Hawkeyes, which of course brings out the BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN [1] fan in me, because I forever wanna go back to Ohio State, to ol’ Columbus-town. [2]

I’ve always enjoyed the student-athletes in my classes, and always enjoyed the ways they broke the “dumb jock” stereotypes – especially the football players who owned their science coursework, from the elite linebacker slaving over a copy machine in the library to the placekicker owning a physics lab by sheer force of personality to the wide receiver making the mathematics behind classical mechanics look far too easy. I’ve always felt like I understood the double life those athletes have to lead, and that I’d supported them as well as I could.

I believed that until roughly the afternoon of November 8, 2015.

I’d recognized there had been tensions building at Mizzou all fall, and I think I had heard a rumor or two about a graduate student leader organizing action in defense of both grad students and African-Americans. (Naturally, I was more concerned about the graduate students and whether they’d have insurance on their assistantships.) I know I hadn’t heard a lick about what Concerned Student 1950 was, or how that leader was so alienated by his university’s lack of concern about the racism he experienced on a regular basis that he was moved to hunger strike.

And when that alienation drove players on the football team to tell their coach that they didn’t feel like it was time for games, and their coach (and all credit to Gary Pinkel forever for his immediate support) arranged for that picture to demonstrate that he stood with those players, my lone reaction was “I really don’t have a clue, do I?”

So many others have described that disconnect, but I’ve since always thought Bill Connelly described it best when he described his own experience as a student:

There have always been two Missouri campuses, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that isn’t unique for college towns. There has always been unofficial segregation, and most of it comes by choice. You gravitate toward that with which you are familiar, even (or especially) when in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that means people from your high school. Maybe that means people of your color.

I was lucky. Mizzou attracts a pretty diverse population, in part because of the journalism school. My dorm floor was made up almost equally of students from Kansas City, St. Louis, rural Missouri and Chicago. I came from a small Oklahoma town that had more Native Americans than African Americans, but I was on a floor with quite a few black students. One became my roommate. Others became good friends.

You can find common ground with just about anyone if you try, and we didn’t have to try very hard. But no matter how similar we were in our tastes and preferences — sports, music, TV, girls, whatever — I was randomly exposed to our differences. One friend had regular meetings with an advisor as part of aid he was receiving to be able to attend the school. Another would act differently when we would encounter a black acquaintance on campus.

Little things opened a window into a different world. Things like attending the NPHC Homecoming step show, where you’re suddenly in the vast minority and having an incredible time.

It didn’t take much empathy to realize the experience of any member of any minority population is simply different. It could still be good or mostly good, but it was going to be different, and there was no way around that. And while every black student gets exposed to a white world while attending college, not every white student gets the same experience.

At one point in my life, I was immersed in the recognition of every different culture that made the modern university. You could not possibly attend Ohio State and not be made aware, and – God bless Elizabeth Gross, God bless her priorities steering admissions to the Biophysics Program at Ohio State – I was in a far more diverse environment than most at Ohio State. Students from all around the country, men and women, never as many students of color as Dr. Gross wanted but dang if she didn’t try. And then the international students, and she could have filled a program with students from China or India with the pile of superior applications from those two countries, but she made a point to push the admissions committee to take applicants from every nation seriously, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine and Nigeria and I know for a fact I’m not remembering every example. The student who followed me in my graduate lab was from – of course – Iran.

Having the best program – having the best university – meant diversity mattered. It meant we recognized one another’s voices. It meant we recognized how we thought differently, how we engaged differently with the science.

That was an incredible inheritance for me to receive. And then I moved south, first for the postdoc in Birmingham, then for the faculty job in the deepest Deep-South part of Georgia. And although it didn’t happen all at once, my surroundings began to get progressively whiter, and progressively more comfortable. And my understanding of that inheritance started to fade.

Twitter helped some, forced me to pay attention a little bit better. But the Mizzou boycott snapped me to attention. I felt comfortable, and many of my students felt comfortable. But some might be afraid. Some might be desperately so.

I made a point in my next meeting with my classes to say that this was on my heart, and a guy like me might think he understands but he might not have a clue. And what’s more, he might think it’s cool to be seeing a bunch of football players in his class and enjoy a few yuks with them about the game but he really doesn’t understand a thing about their experience, especially when they’re black and he’s white. And I promised – whenever a need was in front of them, and they felt burdened – to be an ear who would listen.

I have kept that promise imperfectly, perhaps even horribly. I jumped jobs within the year, after all. And even as I left one group of football players behind, I entered into a new class at the new place and couldn’t seem to build the connections with those athletes burdened by that double life anywhere near as much as I wanted. Part of the difficulty is simply the age difference. Once I might have that cool young prof who could do no wrong and who everyone wanted to hang out with. Now I have students who are the same age as my own kids, and I’m the same age as their fathers – or even older. Father Time, the saying goes, is undefeated.

But even in this moment of history – especially in this moment of history – we’re still human, together, in a time where the laws are being torn up and rewritten seemingly to inflict maximum pain on the people who aren’t like me, who don’t share my skin tone, who aren’t my gender. It seems to me that even pointing out the age difference is so much useless whining. We need one another, we need to be working together and not against one another.

I care about so much of this open pedagogy movement, so much about making academic resources available freely (“free” as in speech and “free” as in beer), so much about opening my educational practices to empower learners. But – with all respect to Pomerantz and Peek, and all understanding why I should read an article on the “fifty shades of open” – the meaning of “open” that matters most to me is the open relationship I need with my students.

My student’s lives are important. I don’t need to pretend that they are simply in my classroom as automatons and their engagement and effectiveness aren’t influenced by what happens outside the classroom, what happens in their families, what happens in their workplaces – and yes, what happens in Washington, D.C.

I need to create the space that allows my students to be the most open, the most honest, the most free (and “free” as in without restraints, without judgment, without fear). That doesn’t just matter in humanities or arts classes, that matters in the sciences as well. Students need to be affirmed. Students need to know their experience matters.

And I need to continue to commit myself to the willingness to listen, no matter where that listening takes me.

[1] BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN, of course, should always be spelled with fourteen “n”‘s. No real reason.
[2] to the stadium to hear the band, by far the finest in the land