[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast at the James E. Walker Library. I am your host, Interim Dean of the James you Walker library Jason Martin, and I'm joined in Studio 473 today by Assistant professor of English and director of the Margaret H. Ordobadian University Writing Center. Dr. Erica Cirrillo-McCarthy. Welcome Erica. How are you?
[ERICA CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Good Jason, thanks for having me.
[MARTIN] Thanks for being here. Let me tell our audience a little bit more about you, Erica. So in addition to directing the University Writing Center and teaching undergraduate courses in first-year writing, research and argumentation, in tutoring writing, in graduate classes, in archival research methods and in directed reading an oral history in rhetoric and composition, she taught writing and rhetoric courses for the program in writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she also served as the assistant director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. Her scholarship has been published in Praxis, a writing center Journal, The Journal of Global Literacies Technologies and Emerging Pedagogies, and other edited collections. She earned her Ph.D. in rhetoric, composition in the teaching of English from the University of Arizona, and more importantly to me, earned her BA and MA in English at Florida Atlantic University in Beautiful Boca Raton, Florida. Now, before reading your CV, I did not know you went to school at FAU. I knew you had been there, but I thought you worked there.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Oh, do you remember that first time that we met and we walked over to the fall faculty meetings and you said to me, “what are you doing here?” And then we got into this whole discussion about Florida, and I swear I said I went to Florida Atlantic.
[MARTIN] I think I probably did not say what are you doing here. I probably give a much more welcoming greeting.
It was a very welcoming “What are you doing here?”
[MARTIN] And but yeah, so I know you mentioned FAU, but I thought you had worked there, but you're back in Conference USA at MTSU. And now this, so everybody right now [has a] burning question on their mind. November 28th. FAU Owls come to the Boro take on the mighty Blue Raiders. Who you got?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I have to back MTSU.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Oh yeah.
[MARTIN] You're gonna sell out your school like that?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Well, I do have to tell you that when I was a student at FAU, I did not go to any football games because we did not have a football team. We didn't even have a football stadium. It wasn't until I graduated in 2006. I feel like their first year was 2007-2008, so there wasn't... I have no history of supporting the burrowing owls.
[MARTIN] But they're not the burrowing owls, they're just the Owls.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] That type of owl is a burrowing owl. It's famous to the campus. Actually, I don't think there are any more left. To be fair that they would burrow in the ground.
[MARTIN] Yeah, OK, alright. So also Erica is a bird watcher, apparently, in her free time.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] So I saw this new bird this weekend. I'm so happy you mentioned it! It has a light Brown body, an orange beak and an orange tail and I had never seen one before. Turns out it's a northern cardinal.
[MARTIN] Oh wow.
[MARTIN] I didn't, I didn't know such things existed.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I didn't even know there was a separation between a northern cardinal and a southern cardinal yeah?
[MARTIN] Yeah, well, you know there's a lot of north-south divides Northern Baptist, Southern Baptist, northern cardinals, southern cardinals, yeah.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] We're in the right place for it, right? Tennessee was right down the middle when it came to the divide, so yeah.
[MARTIN] It makes sense on the migrating birds, huh? Alright.
[MARTIN] So let's talk about writing and rhetoric. OK, so MTSU has a BA in English with a track in writing studies and then a similar MA, correct? So, speaking broadly, writing and rhetoric, what does a program of study look like? So, what do you learn about if you were to major or get a Ph.D., let's say, in writing and rhetoric?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] So in regards to a Ph.D., I think one of the things that we focus intently on is pedagogy, right? So how do you teach writing in all its context, not just at the University level? But how do you teach writing from K through 12? How do you talk about writing and create writing centers? So, we're very concerned with helping Ph.D. students gain those skills that will help them become effective writing pedagogues as they move forward in their career.
[MARTIN] OK, and So what real world applications do you see for writing and rhetoric? So, let's say I'm not taking my Ph.D. Let's say I get a bachelor's degree English with its track in writing. I'm not going to go into teaching, So what? How do you see this sort of playing out?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Well, first of all, I do want to take umbrage with your use of the word real world, 'cause we're in a real world, Jason. Unless I can fly in this world, this is the real world. But I hear what you're saying. What can a focus on writing do for students when they graduate from MTSU? Well, the fact is almost every single career has some type of writing in it, but a focus on writing in a major or minor can help students become stronger editors. They can help them go into public relations. It would be incredibly useful for anyone going into Graduate School. And the fact is, so many CEOs have said the things that they're looking for in employees are affective communication skills and I think being a writing minor here at MTSU will really help students better prepare for communicating and in kinds of contexts, right? And that includes digital contexts. Um, more textual contexts. Any type of situation, they will be better able to deal with.
[MARTIN] So I'm interested too in the rhetoric part of this. So, I was reading a book on Saint Paul the Apostle, who wrote a lot of the New Testament, and the authors were explaining, you know, to really understand this, you have to understand the rhetoric which Paul was writing. You know this, and they gave some examples like one of them, sort of this just great exaggeration, almost a satire, and then bring it back and say, well, that's not how it is. And all these and once you understood this rhetorical writing style, then you could understand what he was trying to communicate better in these epistles. And so it got me to thinking, you know, 'cause when I think of rhetoric and rhetorical styles, I mostly think of speaking, of oral, you know. And probably the most famous speech, at least the most famous recorded speech, maybe in the entire world, is the “I Have a Dream” speech and that's kind of what I would call a pulpit-style. So, Martin Luther King going back to that preaching style coming. “I have a dream,” repeating that, and trying to get that message across. So, when we talk about rhetorical styles in writing, is that still a thing? Is that we leave that behind in the classical world? Or like what are like rhetorical writing styles? And do I have one?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Well, as someone who is written with you on articles, yes, you have your own style. You have actually a really great style of getting to the point and being succinct. And I would say that's your individual rhetorical style, but I'd like to step back a little bit and talk about rhetoric, and in particular the rhetorical situation. And that's where I think we can explain rhetoric that's in an accessible way for a lot of people. So, when we think about the rhetorical situation, we're thinking about the context in which the act of rhetoric comes about and is communicated.
So, if we go back to the “I Have a Dream” speech, it makes sense if we consider the context in which Dr. King was giving his speech. It makes sense to think about the actual space in which he was giving the speech, right? The Mall and all of these things that were going on, these geopolitical issues that were happening at that time, and what compelled him to write the “I Have a Dream” speech, including all of those repetitions, which I'm sure you noticed, are very biblical, right in their style. He's a reverend, right? So, it makes a whole lot of sense that his rhetorical style is sprinkled with a kind of rhetorical style that we find, especially in black churches, right? That kind of call-and-response, and that beautiful approach to language that reinforces the important concepts that the rhetor wants the audience to take away with them.
So, the rhetorical situation is important because it creates the exigence, right? The reason for the rhetorical act. Tt forces the rhetor to understand their audience in ways that informs a rhetorical decision, and there's this really great rhetorician. His name is Jim Corder. He's since passed along time ago, but he wrote that rhetoric is really about love because in order to understand your audience so well that you create a message specifically for them that they can understand and then act upon, you have to love them and that is, I think, absent when we talk about rhetoric in the public sphere. We say, oh that it's all political rhetoric. Or that's empty rhetoric. But that's missing the point of what rhetoric is and what rhetoric can do, and rhetoric has the ability to change lived realities. And what I mean by that is rhetoric can be epistemic. I can build new knowledge with you, as we have a rhetorical exchange, or I can encourage my audience to act upon something, therefore changing their reality and other people's lived reality. So I went on a train and I'm gonna stop right there and see if you have any questions.
[MARTIN] No, it's great. Yeah, I mean I've got some follow-up questions, but I mean yeah keep hitting us with the rhetoric.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] So rhetorical education, which I think is really at the heart of your question. Why do we teach rhetoric? First, just briefly, rhetoric was actually part of the original pillars from the original universities, right? So, if you go back to the first university, University of Bologna, the and you look at the classes that students took, rhetoric was one of them, right? It was always there alongside mathematics, say, and whatever science was at that time. Then it went away for a long time and and it was called something else, and then probably around the 60s, you saw like a resurgence of it, right? How do we create rhetoric programs in the United States that speak to its historical origins, but then also attend to our lived reality right now, right? It's great to talk about classical rhetoric and that informs a lot of the ways in which we talk about rhetoric and engage in rhetorical acts, but rhetoric has changed so much, and you alluded to that in your question. Is it just words on a paper? No, we can rhetorically analyze an image or a TV show or a song. Rhetoric is multimodal because the ways in which we communicate are multimodal. So, we can look at anything and look at the rhetorical situation in which it was created, its purpose, and its goals, evaluate and see if it's effective, but then also learn a lot about the speaker and the context in which this rhetorical act exists.
[MARTIN] OK, so talking about rhetoric and particularly in higher education, what do you think that rhetoric and higher education does well? And where do you see room for improvement and maybe some failures in in rhetoric and in higher Ed?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Do you mean like how rhetoric is taught?
[MARTIN] Uh, no. I was thinking more about just how we in higher education, I think, communicate with each other.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] So the rhetoric of higher ed.
[MARTIN] Yes, yes, and then I think also and then you have to say how we communicate with our students and then also I think the world outside of higher ed.?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Gosh, it's such a big question, but luckily, I've talked about this in my research. As someone who works in a higher ed institution, you're right, I pay close attention to the rhetorics of higher education, and I think it's important to pay close attention to them because so much is at stake with higher Ed, right? And you and I have talked about this a lot. Being 1st Gen students and having that first-generation experience, we know how important an education can be to someone who may be is the first person in their family, to say returning student who has three kids an and was like off. Higher ed. is so incredibly important to so many of our students, in particular MTSU students. So, it is important to pay attention to higher ed rhetorics.
I am particularly drawn to state institution higher ed rhetorics, and this is what we talked about the first time we met. And that was why I went from an elite private institution to a state institution, and a lot of it has to do with the higher ed rhetorics in state institutions and the discursive practices around those rhetorics. So, what do I mean by that? Access and inclusion are incredibly important to me, because if FAU wasn't there for me, I would have still been a college dropout and I don't know if I've ever told you this story, but I my first attempt at going to school failed miserably. I went away to a small liberal arts school, and I thought it was pretty smart, right? I graduated early, and I thought I was ready to go off to University and within three semesters, I had a 1.5 GPA and they showed me the door. So, a lot of that, though I had to do with me not knowing how to be a student. I didn't know how to ask for help. I certainly didn't go to the writing center, and it didn't seem like there was any support there, so I failed out and I went back home to Florida and work some really crappy jobs there and then decided after six years--I lived in New York City, I did real estate. I've worked in some really crazy jobs. But I decided to go back to school and it was because of the state institution that I was able to do it easily and without going into debt. So, I owe Florida Atlantic a huge amount of gratitude for being there, and I see MTSU playing that same role. When you think about inclusion, and access, and I love the Tennessee Promise, right? Paying for the first two years of school. I think MTSU fits in nicely with the goal of the state to help its citizens become more educated. So, when we think about higher ed rhetorics, I really think about the state school rhetorics of serving the constituents within that state and helping them get into higher education so that they can do more, right?
[MARTIN] Yeah, when I worked at a small private liberal arts school and their student body was much like MTSU's. A lot of first gen, a lot of Pell Grants, and there was kind of this half and half divide. The other half of the students—So, the first gen students. Pell Grant students were typically pretty good students. They were ‘A’ students coming out of their schools and then there was a lot of students who came from very wealthy backgrounds who were kind of meddling students, but they could pay all this tuition, you know. But one of the reasons why I left the private school and came back to a state institution was so many of the faculty at the private school would complain that we needed better students. We need better students, and one day--I can sometimes get up on a soapbox—and one day I got up and I said, you know, we have these great students to come here, first-generation college students, and we are changing their lives. And we're molding into something, to go out and make a difference in their community and their world, give back and help, you know, generations after them or similar to them, and so eventually there are no more first gen students. You know, where we're much more equitable plane and why don't we make that our story instead of this whole drive that we want to be, I don't know, a little a little Princeton, you know. And uh, it wasn't met all that well. So, did you experience that? I mean, at your time at a very elite private school. I mean, did you kind of experience that sort of what I would just call kind of academic snobbery or... Was that was that your experience?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I think that the hierarchy of higher education was definitely more prominent at the private elite school that I used to work at. But what I took from there, I'm going to flip it and be positive, what I took from there was the immense amount of resources that were dedicated to students. And I and I kept thinking about my experience at FAU. Thinking, wow, what if we could do this? What if we can do this at a state school? Provide the support that these already, say over-resourced students, already have access to? If we can give them the state school students who might come from under-resourced public schools, what would that look like? And that was really a kind of big motivator for me to apply to writing center director jobs at state institutions. I just feel like home at a state institution, and MTSU is so much like FAU in that way. It's a regional right? It has such dedicated faculty. I agree with you. Did you come here and see that faculty were different?
[MARTIN] It's a very different mindset and in a different focus, even that even at that private school which was a teaching institution, I see a much more dedication to students here at MTSU than any place I've been.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Yeah, I 100% feel that way. Faculty are so dedicated to their students and I know this because they email me because they're concerned about one student who might be falling behind or they email me and say, "How can I make this writing assignment more effective for my students?” What are the steps that I can take to scaffold this for students so that they walk away from this project with something that they're really proud of, and they have cognitive gain. So yeah, I 100% agree with that. Now, I have to tell you a funny story about my elite private institution experience. So, talk about resources. There is this one faculty member who would, with their partner, fly students from Northern California to LA to go to the Getty Museum for a day and then fly back that night, and it was all paid for. So, those are the kind of resources I can't give to students, but it just shows the stark divide. So, when I think about higher ed rhetorics, I think there is a massive divide between the haves and the have-nots, but I think that MTSU faculty do everything they can in their power to make sure that MTSU students are well served and get the best education that they can.
[MARTIN] I heard a story about Cornel West when he was at Yale. He was supposed to have taken in a sabbatical, at like fall semester, and he's going to teach at, I think it was The Sorbonne in Paris, and he did something that upset the President of Yale, who then denied him a sabbatical. So instead of just postponing this teaching engagement at The Sorbonne, he taught at Yale and then would take this jet like, not like the Concorde [but] maybe the Concorde was around then, and then fly over to Paris and teach over the weekend and then fly back to Connecticut. This is what he did for an entire semester.
[MARTIN] And I was like, that's kind of ridiculous, you know.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] That's a lot, yeah.
[MARTIN] And this always brings up the idea of giving, and people want to give collections in money to these schools that already have. And I'm like, give it to the schools that don't have and it'll be much more appreciated, put to better use. And you know, students and faculty will make much better use of those materials or that money than they will at a school that's already got a $9-billion endowment.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Try 27 billion. It seems crazy to think about that, but don't trash Cornel West. I saw him speak at Arizona. He's kind of amazing, but that isn't that why he ended up getting fired from that Yale job, wasn't it?
[MARTIN] So, he's been tenured at Harvard, at Yale, and he's back at Union Theological universities. I think that was his first teaching gig, and now he's back there. Um so, and I've heard you know, Cornell sometimes put some folks down like, “You're like you're not connected to the real world. You're not connected to the neighborhood.” And I'm like, "Really? You know, Dr. West, let's talk.” But he's an amazing scholar and an amazing person.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] And he has a great rhetorical style.
[MARTIN] Yes, he does.
So, speaking of and sort of saying on this higher ed track, so one of your specializations is feminist rhetorical practice theory in pedagogy, and you've also published on sexism in the academy. Where do you see sexism the most in higher education? Where does it kind of stand out as the most prevalent?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] So, you just referred to a huge survey that my collaborators and I did. It was a multi-national survey and we invited respondents to remark upon when they face sexism or exclusionary acts. And so, the space in which it happened and by whom, we thought going in that it would be students. You know, doing little micro-aggressions like calling female faculty members “Miss,” right? That happens quite a bit, especially with younger female faculty members.
[MARTIN] Instead of Dr.?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Instead of Doctor, yeah. Or by their first name. So little tiny micro-aggressions like that. We thought we would see that be replicated in the survey. Instead, we found out that it was peer colleagues and supervisors. So, program directors, chairs, Provosts. Those were the ones that actually committed most exclusionary acts according to our respondents. And it ran the gamut from, say, over talking in meetings, right? I'm sure you've seen that in meetings that you might have, say, male colleagues, who will talk over female colleagues. But then there was also this whole kind of heteronormative framework. That was consistently reinforced in departments where you would think, like in liberal arts departments, where you would think folks were pretty “woke,” but they were not. There is this heteronormative expecting that that we kept seeing over and over again. So, assuming folks were heterosexuals and that partners were of opposite genders. Not understanding any kind of, say gender fluidity or sexuality on the spectrum, just a lot of assumptions that were made. And then also included in our exclusionary acts, were microaggressions or exclusionary acts that focus on race. That was always a kind of a comment that kept coming up in our respondents. Things like, say, if people were racially ambiguous, you know the usual where are you from? No, where are you really from, right? So those type of comments people would encounter in such frequency, it was really quite surprising for us, yeah?
[MARTIN] I was just reading... Remember Rebecca Tuvel? I'm not sure how you pronounce her last name. She's at Rhodes College over in Memphis. She wrote that article on comparing the rhetoric around transgender and transracialism. The Rachel Dolezal case was really big at that time, and so I was just reading some of the responses to that and what's amazing is it kind of broke open a lot of things that really had nothing to do with her. Because there's a lot of controversy around the articles people wanted retracted, and it's a really good article. It's in Hypatia. I don't know how you pronounce that, but it was kind of this thing where it then it just took off and you had people writing about the rampant sexism in philosophy and the sexual harassment and all of these sorts of things. And so it may be ironic that you think of these fields as being sort of so enlightened, and you've read all this philosophy and all these very progressive politics come out of it, but then you treat each other terribly in those departments.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I think you're right. I feel like folks in the liberal arts fields like to point to STEM and say oh look at them. It's all a bunch of men and they're the ones that are the worst offenders. But that's not the case, right? And you're exactly right. You would think that if someone studies, say, any type of inclusive field or objective analysis that that would somehow, I don't know, bleed into how they treat other people, but that's unfortunately not the case at all. I think it also shows, especially with what you just referred this the importance of intersectionality and how we need to look at exclusionary acts through this framework of intersectionality and understand what Kimberly Crenshaw calls the Matrices of Oppression. So, multiple people can be excluded in in a variety of different ways depending on the different ways in which they identify, and we should talk about that. It's not just sexism. Also, what did you? What word did you use, trans?
[MARTIN] Transracialism and transgenderism.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Transracialism? What is that?
[MARTIN] So Rachel Dolezal. Remember she was the white woman who identified as Black. She was the president of the NAACP in the State of Washington. Fascinating documentary on Netflix. I think it's called Rachel. It's a really good look at her life, and of course, this all comes out recently. And several academics have said they identify as Black. She always said she identified as Black. But these couple of people have just said they were black. There was like a Black woman from the Bronx, she was a White woman from Kansas and these sorts of things. They just sort of took the identity on. I don't even know if they even necessarily identified that way.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] And it is interesting, that last one that we talked about was someone who never corrected other people putting projecting a particular identity on them, but then also blamed their confusion on their ancestry. And I think we're going to see a lot of that, like, “I don't... I didn't really... I thought I was Cuban.” Well, everybody in your family is Italian, so how would that work? And then you could say, OK Italians, I don't even know how that I can't even go down that line. It just doesn't make any sense to me. The fact is, right, that these people belong to racial groups that are perceived as White, so it almost... You know, I don't know. I just don't wanna go any further. I don't even know how to finish that sentence, but so transracialism. That is interesting, yeah.
[MARTIN] it's a good article. Read it if you get chance because when you first started here too, I was like Cirrillo. Yeah, for some reason I was thinking that was a Puerto Rican name, and then I made the Florida connection and the New York. You are from New York, Florida and then one day, you said something about your father from Italy. And I was like, oh damn, that's a really Italian name. I'm not sure where I got anything but that.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] And Cirillo is actually how you say it in Italian. Is like Smith in Italy? So, like, when I go to Italy, I'm like hey do you know Vito Cirillo, he's my uncle. And they're like, “Yeah there's like 10 Vitos. Which one is your uncle, OK?”
[MARTIN] So let's take a short break and let's learn a little bit more about what the University Writing Center can do for students.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] The Margaret H. Ordoubadian University Writing Center is here to help all MTSU students with any type of writing, in any class, and in any genre. Students can strengthen their writing skills, work on multimodal projects, such as poster and e-portfolios, get individualized synchronous or asynchronous feedback, schedule a writing partnership for long term goals or projects, and participate in writing groups. Please visit our website at mtsu.edu/writing-center for more information. We hope to see you soon.
[MARTIN] OK, have you read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death?
[MARTIN] Oh, it's a great book, and his thesis is that, and he wrote this in the early 80s, is that we've moved from an era of reading and writing long monographs. So, in which you can make very nuanced, complex arguments and into what he called the audio-visual age. So, starting late 1800s early 1900s, glossy magazines, pictures, shorter articles, and then all the way up to and he talks a lot about the evening news, where you have little snippets and sound bites, and then you have these very short news segments on, often very complex foreign policy or domestic policy, and then he also makes the distinction between reading, which is very active versus listening. You know, getting this information from the television, which is very passive. How do you--Well, maybe it's not fair to ask you sort of your response to that, since you haven't read the book. But I mean, do you see this in in students’ writing? Maybe a difficulty with trying to make very sort of long arguments or getting to nuanced things. Or I know I've talked to at least one faculty member who once told me that kind of text language made it into writings and papers. How do you see this sort of era that we live in infiltrating students, writing and rhetoric and argumentation?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I think that's a fair question and a good question. I think the first thing I would do is challenge the author, because it sounds like the author is making this artificial divide from before now, where they're kind of identifying writing and communication as a monolith, and I would I would push back against that. We can see throughout time that the ways in which we communicated has always changed, so this idea that we're now in this new age where people are communicating differently and that might have an effect on how they write sounds a little bit like previous literacy crises.
So, we can go back to the higher ed rhetorics with this concept literacy crisis, and writing center folk are really kind of in tune to this concept of literacy crises, because that's kind of how writing centers were created. There was a crisis. Kids can't read. Kids can't write. Johnny can't write, right? That was a really big thing. It's unfortunately something that continually comes up. There is always this idea of “well, students used to be able to write, but they can't now.” And studies have shown, longitudinal studies that have looked at student writing from the late 18th 1800s. It's the same, right? That students struggle with the same thing, which is understanding themselves as authors. When we invite students to, say, use these sources but also add your original idea to it, that's a huge challenge for students because they're sitting there like wait a minute. I work at Dairy Queen who am I to add to say, Thomas Kuhn or, you know, any of these philosophers. I'm not trained for that.
So, that's a big challenge for students. And I don't know if the digital age has made that easier or more complicated for students. But what I think is at the heart of your question is this idea of communicating in a digital way, does that change the way students [write]? I think what it changes is the way students think about attribution and citing sources and these issues of plagiarism. Now, this might just be because I just gave a whole workshop on plagiarism and preventing it. But if you think about remix culture, how does that translate into the classroom? And it's really challenging for students, especially if you're having a really great conversation in your class and everyone's talking and students are exchanging ideas. When they go home to write their paper, now they don't know what's their idea and what's not. So then when you say I want you to write an original thought and have an original contribution, it really muddies the water for them. So, these are the things that... How do we address this? We need to be really explicit in our discussion about plagiarism. We need to invite students to remix. I think that's always an exciting activity for students, but to understand that here in this place we value contributions and we value attributions, and we need to make that really clear for students. But I like to use digital writing to show students that they are writers. They have been writing since they had their Myspace page.
[MARTIN] Yeah. I was talking about Copyright and using sort of Fair Use, and I made the joke that I'm using this under the George Clinton P Funk Act. Which for those of you not familiar, George Clinton, and because [we’re talking about] about remix culture, there's a lot of controversy in the 80s when rap music was making his ascendancy, 'cause it when got started, you would take these R&B and funk records, and on the breakdown, you would just keep spinning the breakdown, which is why you get a DJ spinning the records. And then people would rap over it, so that continued into recording. But then it brought up all these issues about copyrights and royalties, and George Clinton said, "Anybody can just use my music. Do whatever you want. Don't bother me. I got things to do.” And so I like to think I'm using something under the George Clinton Act.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I like that, and in fact I met George Clinton.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] When I volunteered for Sunfest, which is this three-day musical festival in West Palm Beach, FL. So, I volunteered one year to be the entertainment transportation. So I got to pick up the entertainment at the hotels and bring them to the festival. George Clinton was one of 'em, but yeah, it was super exciting and awesome, but we didn't talk about plagiarism. I also met Rick James, but that's for a whole other podcast, yeah?
[MARTIN] Well, you talk about digital writing and in going sort of back into the postman's argument that he picked this up from Marshall McLuhan. It very famously said the medium is the message, but this reminds me of course the postman died many decades ago, but of Twitter and how we have 280 characters, used to 140, now it’s 280. And you can't do any kind of nuance or subtlety or anything in such a small space, and so we get reduced down to very generic, overly broad statements. And then you know, and then we get into all of these very ugly back-and-forths and why I'm still on Twitter, I don't know. I have no idea. I need to get off. But I mean that's a good example, though of where we see this kind of new age, digital age, Internet age kind of hurting the development maybe or understanding of how you make complex arguments, 'cause we're so used to putting everything down in just a very few characters on our telephone.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] And I think that also carries over into maybe coming up with easy answers. One of the things that I always try to instill in students is kind of this virtue of not knowing the answer, being unsure and instead exploring all of the possibilities. That might be something that we're missing, but I don't know if it's a digital media issue insomuch as it's “I'm right and you're wrong" issue, right? This kind of perhaps overheated public discourse that we have going on right now, but yeah, sitting with an idea, taking a long time, writing detailed notes. These are all really wonderful habits of mine that we should instill in students. And I actually I see that in a lot of the assignments that come to the writing center that are really quite wonderful and students get it. They know that that's important, and I think that when they get it and they are able to master that. This kind of being able to sit with complex issues for a long time, they really value it, and they appreciate that the faculty members spent time explaining that or creating the space for them to do that because so much of their world is. Look here, look here, look here, look here. So it's nice to be able to cultivate that kind of slowing down and coming to understand something before you rush to judgment and come up with your own answer.
[MARTIN] I have you read Stephen King's On Writing?
[MARTIN] He talks about how he finishes a manuscript. He puts it in a desk drawer for six weeks. And then he comes back to it and gives it a read and edit, and then he'll let other people read it and send it out. And I started to do that after I read that book, I started doing that with any scholarship of mine because I'm a very much like, I got things on my to-do list. I like to cross things off. So, taking that time to be still with something or to even stop thinking about it and let it just churn and process in the back of my brain. It was not something that was doing, and so when I sort of doing this, letting things sit and then coming back to them in six weeks, I found it would create improvement to my writing into my thinking, 'cause then I would go back and say, oh, I see that I'm missing this thing or this idea I need to develop and that's the idea I had. You know the other day when I was mowing the yard, o let me add that in there. And it's done wonders. That quiet time is so important, and it's so hard to get in in our world that we live in today.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Well, and I think it becomes almost impossible for students to get there in their writing projects because they put off writing until the very end, because they don't like it for a variety of reasons. So, because they procrastinate until the paper is due, they don't have that time to put it away. Yeah, and as you pointed out, it's so incredibly valuable to come to a writing center tutor to talk about their ideas or their project, or their roommate or their dog, whoever, whoever will listen to them, talk about their project. It adds so much value to their actual finished product, right? And then their thinking as well.
So, one of the other things that you mentioned was really interesting. Not only do you get to sit with this idea a little bit longer, but I think it also helps you attune your kind of rhetorical listening, right? It's a concept by Krista Ratcliffe, who is an amazing rhetorician. And she said, we have to become better listeners, right? And it's listening not for just for things that are said, but listening for things that aren't said and listening for difference so that we come to understand people who are different from us and who have different experiences than us. And often like you even said, rhetoric is about speaking and writing, but it's also within that rhetorical situation about listening and understanding.
[MARTIN] Yeah, so you've mentioned the writing center a few times. What can the writing center do for students and faculty? Because often we think of, you know, a student who does know how to use a semicolon properly. Somebody who is a famous author who said, “the only use a semicolon has is to show that you went to college.” But it's so much more than that in the writing center. So, tell us a little bit about what the writing center can do for students or faculty.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] So the writing center. Well, first, I'll talk about the tutors who are at the writing center. These are trained peer tutors, undergraduate and graduate students, who are committed to working with students and faculty on any writing project. They are a really good group of empathetic folks who just love to talk about writing. So first, I want to point that out because I think a lot of people have this idea of writing center tutors. Oh, they're the best writer in the class. They're the smartest person. I don't want to show my work to them 'cause they might say something bad about how I write. And I wanted to spell that because we hire based on their ability to teach and to talk about writing in really exciting and accessible ways to students. So, what students will find at the writing center is an interested reader, somebody who will go over your work and help you develop your ideas. Deepen your claims, find excellent evidence for your claims. Our goal is to help MTSU people become stronger writers. It's not just about that text, but it's about their growth as a writer over time. So because of that, we talk about writing strategies quite a bit, and we'll find right strategies for each individual person, and that's another kind of side of the writing center. It's individualized instruction. So we asked students on the intake form to tell us about how [they] learn, tell us if [they’re] a visual learner or [they] need things repeated often. And that's been a really great change in our intake form because it helps us individualize even more. These one-on-one sessions and for students who are, you know, in larger seminar classes or who might find it a challenge to meet with their professor one-on-one. This is a way for them to get that one-on-one attention that will help them grow in their rhetorical decisions, and again, not just for this one paper, but for all of their writing projects here at MTSU.
[MARTIN] I mean, you're obviously located here in the library, and a lot of writing centers are, and that's been a thing over the past, say 10 years or so. At my last institution the writing center was in the library. How do you see that relationship between writing centers and libraries?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Oh, I think it's such an important relationship because writing and researching go hand-in-hand, right? So, we think about the library is there to support students and research projects and the writing center is there to support their writing up of that research. It makes total sense that the writing center is physically in the library, and we have such wonderful collaborations with user services. I've done multiple workshops with the fabulous librarians here where we go into a classroom. We talk about what are some research best practices and then some writing best practices because they do go hand-in-hand, so it makes a lot of sense.
But back to your question about writing centers and them moving into libraries. Before then they used to be in basements, and in fact [MTSU's] writing center was in Peck Hall’s basement, true to form, and apparently it used to get flooded all the time, and they had to save things like chairs and like run them outside of Peck Hall and then it moved up to third floor in the English Department. And then finally here into the library. And this just makes perfect sense. And it's not just for students, you know. We also support faculty as you mentioned, and we have a close relationship with the LT and ITC. For example, I gave that plagiarism workshop today with Michael Bailey, who runs the Office of Academic Integrity. So, and I gave it for LT and ITC. So, it makes a whole lot of sense that the writing center is here in the library. The LT and ITC is here because we also support faculty in giving effective feedback and creating effective writing assignments. So, all of these things make perfect sense, and it's really one of the reasons why I wanted to come to MTSU. The writing center is such a beautiful space. The library itself is such a gorgeous space. And it just makes so much sense that we're here, and the last thing I just want to say about this. Because the library serves the entire institution. It makes sense that its own building, right? So, then it would make sense that the writing center is here because it serves the entire institution and not just a particular department or program.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and we are very happy to have you here in the library. You started, I think, the year after I did, and you've been such an enthusiastic partner. And you can go take any great ideas to Erica and she's just like, “Yeah, let's do it.”
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] That's very nice.
[MARTIN] So that's what I like to hear.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Very energetic, and I like collaborating. It makes so much sense because if we can make these institutional connections amongst ourselves for students, then students start making those connections. And that's a beautiful thing.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I had a conversation once with a library dean who said that a lot of people talk about the library as the heart of the campus. She said, “But I want it to be the crossroads of the campus where everything that happens on campus has to go through the library. Student success, tutoring, research, whatever it is.” And I've always loved that analogy. I guess it's a metaphor, but I've always thought that was great.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Yeah, kind of like this spoke of a wheel, right? The library can be the spoke of the wheel, right? And then everything kind of goes out from there. And if you think about writing center, they're also the center, right? So, I like any type of center spatial metaphors. Works for me.
[MARTIN] In the crossroads, by the way, if you go to the crossroads at midnight and you face South, that's how you summon the devil. Oh, very good. Yeah, that's I learned that from listening to blues music.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Yes, that's right, yeah.
[MARTIN] It's Robert Johnson supposedly did.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Luckily, I don't know where I face when I'm on campus because, I don't know, I don't have the ocean to help.
[MARTIN] I can orient myself in the library because every day I'm sort of seared by the rising sun. So, while it faces due east, so I get the rising sun coming in and blinds me, and so I've been able to figure out campus directions.
What role have libraries played in your life and in your work?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] That is such an interesting question. So, my first work-study job was in the library. I worked in the non-print department. That's how old I am, and for those of you who don't know, non-print refers to any other type of media. So, we had cassette tapes, VCR's, Betamax, and then CDs were just starting. So that was my first job, my first work-study job at a university. That was the one that I failed out, but I also ended up working at a circulation desk at a library soon after that. It just feels like home. It seems like home to me. I can't imagine not being close to a library and not being able to go into one. There is this kind of multi-sensory thing about libraries that I really like, including the smell of libraries, right? The sound or the absence of sound in a library, and I find no matter where I go, library folk are really, really nice people who just want to help, right? And that's across all the institutions in which I've worked. So, to me, libraries are such a crucial part of anyone's education, but I think that like students feel overwhelmed or maybe intimidated by libraries. So, they don't go in them and I remember back to when I was an undergraduate, I don't think I visited the library enough. Or I wouldn't use them to their full advantage. I would just go find a little cubbyhole and go write about, you know whatever John Milton or whatever I was doing at the time. I didn't realize I could have conversations with librarians who could help me deepen my research practice and that could help me become a stronger scholar. But I know that now.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I think that students walking into an academic library new to the campus, being overwhelmed is very much concerned as they came from their high school. They don't even call them libraries. They were in media centers and they were easy to navigate and find what they're looking for, and then they walk into this place. That's four stories, it's big. But I mean, there's a lot of libraries out there that are much, much bigger. And I've had students come to the reference desk and they want to know where is the history section, and I'm like, “it's like 75,000 books over there. But you're not going to like what are you looking at, you know.” [I’m] just like and then trying to help them. Like you, I mean just what you looking for or people that come up and they say, “I'm trying to find stuff on the aerospace industry.” So yeah, working with these students and trying to help them narrow down to what they're looking for. And yeah, and there's always a concern that you come in and it's overwhelming and they’re just like, “I'm just getting on Google.”[And then they] don't even want to go and ask because they either feel inadequate because they have to ask or that they think they're bothering you. I'm like, “This is what we get paid to do. We sit here and when you come, ask those questions, we help you and we love doing that.”
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Love doing it! I mean, and that's what I try to instill in my students. Go see a librarian and they would be so excited to see you and work with you. And if you can't go physically, then use the chat. The chat function is one of the best inventions out there. It is interesting though how public libraries or K-12 libraries don't map on to academic libraries. It really is different. I mean there are some things that map on, but the important things are things that help people kind of map it out relationally in their head. It's not there, right? Like the sections, as you mentioned, because as you were talking, I was thinking about where I go and vote. I vote in the public library and I had to spend a lot of time there in the last primary election because of social distancing. So you know, I stood there and it was about 20-minute wait and you know, you're looking around and you notice these different sections. And it's just totally different from what we have here.
[MARTIN] One thing I think that all those libraries have in common though, is community. In that they serve a community and they also are a place where community can gather and you can create community in the library, and that's why it's so important to be welcoming and inclusive.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] We have a seed bank in my library. I don't know how that works though. Do I bring the seeds back? Like I'm not really sure I understand the whole checking out of seeds process and then what if I fail of growing anything and I create no new seeds? Do I have to pay a library fine?
[MARTIN] What an overdue fine.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] And I'm I I think I'm too embarrassed to ask about it.
[MARTIN] So you can be a good example for your students and go into the desk and ask.
Well, Erica it's been a pleasure talking to you. You're actually the first guest that we've had on Open Stacks.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] I feel so honored.
[MARTIN] And now this is showbiz, so I don't know when exactly it's going to air. You could be the 50th episode that airs. I don't know, but you are the first guest that we've had on. So, any parting words you want to leave us?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] With well, I'm a little upset we didn't talk about music, but that's OK. Maybe in my follow-up meeting we can talk a little bit more about music. All right, so final words. Is that what you asked me?
[MARTIN] Yeah, just yeah, what was your parting wisdom for everybody?
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] My parting wisdom, especially for MTSU students, if you're listening. You want to make sure you plug into the resources here on campus that will help you with your strategies for success and the writing center should be an important part of those strategies for success, and I just want to let students know, again in any discipline. Today, for example, we helped students with a biology lab report, a social work graduate school application, a 1010 paper, and a math education master's thesis. and these are just four out of, say, 50 appointments that that happened today. This is really the place for all writers. Not bad writers or deficient writers. Every writer can become a stronger writer, and you and I have talked about this a lot, about this idea that that we take a growth mindset approach to writing. In that the writer you'll be in five years will be a better writer than you are now, and I believe that about myself, so I can easily see how students can take on that growth mindset if they don't feel like there are strong writers right now, I guarantee they can become strong writers.
[MARTIN] Alright, well thank you very much. Yeah, it's been a pleasure.
[CIRILLO-MCCARTHY] Thanks, Jason.
[MARTIN] Thank you for listening to Open Stacks, a podcast to the James E. Walker Library. To learn more about the Walker Library, visit us on the web at library.mtsu.edu, on Facebook at MTSU Library, on Twitter @MTSULibrary, and on Instagram @WalkerLibrary.
If you liked what you heard today, subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast platform, like Spotify, iTunes, or Google Play. Thank you and have a great day.
Welcome to Open Stacks a podcast of the James E. Walker Library
I am your host and interim dean of the James E. Walker Library Jason Martin and today’s episode will be a Spooktacular one as I tell a few ghost stories about the Walker Library. So many lives pass through any library, so many people love being in a library, and all libraries are filled with so much knowledge, wisdom, information, and power it makes sense libraries around the world would attract the supernatural. Everything from ghosts to eerie feelings to unexplained phenomena have been reported in libraries, and the Walker Library is no different. Here are a few tales from deep within the James E. Walker Library vault. All of these stories are true. I spoke with all parties involved, and while they gave me permission to use their stories, they refused to talk on the record about their experiences.
Books typically fly off our shelves as students and faculty work hard on their scholarship and class assignments, but have you ever seen a book going flying off a shelf when no one touched it? One of our former student assistants has. It was a quiet summer day when she was working in the stacks. All of a sudden before her eyes a book flew off the shelf and hit the wall over six feet away. She jumped up and ran around the corner of the book stacks. Surely there was a student who knocked the book off the shelf, but no one was there. She frantically walked up and down each aisle to find the culprit, her pace quickening on each new aisle until finally she realized she was all alone. She carefully and quiet walked back to the book laying on the floor. Her heart was pounding and her mind was racing. What is going on? She thought. Better not answer that she quickly followed up. She bent down to pick up the book and as soon as she touched it she pulled her hand away. The book was ice cold. Never again would she work in that part of the library alone.
While libraries have traditionally been quiet places, they are not silent, and you can hear the chatter of groups studying together, pages in books turning, and students typing away on their latest paper. But one sound that is out of place in the Walker Library is children’s laughter. Along certain back walls in the library, children’s laughter can be heard, especially at closing time. They have even been seen running up and down the stacks. Searches of the floor always turn up nothing. What do you think they do in the Walker Library after it closes?
“Can I have a different study room?” the student asked. “Is something wrong with the one you have now?” the librarian asked. “It’s just…I would…I would really like another room” the obviously nervous student stammered. The librarian helping the student was becoming alarmed. Is this student in trouble she thought. “What is it? You can tell me.” Silence. Finally the student quietly but bravely said, “The room is weird. One side is hot and the other cold. The lights keep flickering on and off. And strangest of all my bag keeps sliding off the table. I put it right in the middle of the table and it still slid off.” “We will check you out another room,” the librarian told the student. Relieved the student went off to have a productive study session far away from that room. Once the student left the librarian looked at the study room key. “That poor student. The professor who lives there is harmless, but very protective of the room. Not sure how this got back into check out rotation. I will lock the key up in my office just to make sure this does not happen again.”
A graduate student wanted to film an art project in the library. She mounted a video camera to a platform and tied helium balloons to the rig. The camera would float throughout the library all Saturday night and Sunday morning. By the time the library opened early Sunday afternoon, the balloons would have deflated and she could pick up her camera start work on editing the footage. Only problem was when she came back on Sunday, the camera and the entire rig was nowhere to be found. She searched every inch of the library, including on top of book stacks. She even got a Walker Library staff member to go up on a ladder and look on the very top of the highest wall fixtures and even the elevator shafts. Nothing. No one knew nor could explain what happened to her camera. Months went by without any trace of the camera, and the project had all but been forgotten until one day a crew was working on an elevator that gives everyone problems. It is slow, does not always go to the right floor, and late at night if you listen closely you can hear what sounds like the faint call of a person asking you to join them. On top of that elevator shaft – the same shaft that had been examined several times – workers found the camera and rig. The camera looked like a wild animal had gotten a hold of it. It was twisted and torn with bite and claw marks. From the looks of it, all the footage had been lost, but graduate students do not give up that easily. One night she e-mailed excited she was finally able to pull some footage from the camera. It was grainy and broken, but it might work she wrote. The next day we asked about what she found on the camera. She turned pale. “I do not want to talk about it.” “Why not,” we asked. “I just don’t.” Several weeks later was graduation, and she moved out of state that same afternoon. During the short time she had left in the library, she never took the elevators again.
Thank you for listening to Open Stacks, a podcast to the James E. Walker Library. To learn more about the Walker Library, visit us on the web at library.mtsu.edu, on Facebook at MTSU Library, on Twitter @MTSULibrary, and on Instagram @WalkerLibrary. If you liked what you heard today, subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast platform, like Spotify, iTunes, or Google Play. Thank you and have a great day.
[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast at the James E. Walker Library.
I am your host, an Interim Dean of the James E Walker Library, Jason Martin, and I'm joined in Studio 473 today by Lecturer in the Department of English in the General Education English Program coordinator. The 2020 Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellow, and the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Amy Whittemore welcome Amy. How are you?
[AMIE WHITTEMORE] I'm great, how are you?
[MARTIN] Alright, doing great. As if all of those accomplishments I just listed were not impressive enough. let me tell everyone a little bit more about you. So Amie is the author of the book Glass Harvest published by Autumn House Press. The reviews editor at Southern Indiana Review, and the winner of the 2019-2020 General Education English Outstanding Instructor Award. She holds a BA from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a Master of Arts and teaching from Lewis and Clark College and a Master of Fine Arts from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Gettysburg Review Blackbird, The Missouri Review Poem of the Week, Cold Mountain Review and many other places. She's also the winner or finalist of many prestigious poetry awards. And when I say when I first heard your name, I first learned about you. Somebody said, you're the Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro and I was like, “the who, now?" I was not like... I was completely fascinated this existed. Like no offense, I was like this is just amazing, yeah?
[WHITTEMORE] None taken.
[MARTIN] And I think the first time we ever met, we emailed each other a lot. And then we met in a committee meeting. We were introducing ourselves and I was like that's the person I've been emailing a lot, so it was it was a pleasure to meet you then and it's a really great pleasure and honor to sit down and talk with you here.
[WHITTEMORE] Yes, I'm so glad you invited me to come here today.
[MARTIN] All my pleasure, and so I just want to start off. If you could tell us sort of one what all is part of being the Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro and then to this recent award that you got the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellow. What does all of that entail?
[WHITTEMORE] OK, well basically being a Poet Laureate or any kind of Laureate of the arts, which Murfreesboro also has a Photographer Laureate and a Painter Laureate, is a way for local artists to connect with the community, to bring their love of their artwork to others, and to help others try out that artwork. So as Poet Laureate, that means bringing poetry to the people. And I've done that several ways despite the pandemic. Through a project called Dream Geographies, which showcases dreams that local people have dreamt, turned into poetry and art by local poets and artists, I thought that was a really interesting way to have people connect during the pandemic. Since we couldn't be with each other, we could travel and be with each other in our dreams.
And the Academy of American Poets Fellowship has just allowed me to extend my reach into the community and do some things that I had dreamt about, but weren't exactly possible as just little old me.
So in short, I'll try to be in short, the major project that I'll be funding is Write with Pride, which is an LGBTQ youth writing workshop and open mic Series co-sponsored with Southern Word, and we're already started doing workshops with over Zoom just last Saturday. And then the other major project is supporting Murfreesboro’s reading series Poetry in the Boro through a poetry calendar that we're putting together as I speak.
[MARTIN] OK, great sounds fascinating.
I'm interested in what does your creative process look like?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, that is a good question.
Sometimes I think it is... It runs a little too much on automatic these days. I'll sit down in the mornings, read poetry by other people and then go to my laptop and try not to get distracted by all the things that are in the laptop and try to write some poems. And usually, those poems are inspired by different issues going on around the world or in my life or things outside the window, or things that I've read and I'm kind of a magpie and I just try to bring it all together and see what happens.
[MARTIN] So you write every morning then?
[WHITTEMORE] In an ideal world, yes. In a real world, I write between two to four mornings a week depending on what's going on.
[MARTIN] Interesting that you read other poets in poetry before you write, do you ever feel like sometimes that influences you too much like you're just copying what they're what they just read?
[WHITTEMORE] Sometimes you can definitely feel what you read haunting what you're writing, but I kind of welcome myself to that because I think it pushes me into different things to try out, be it in terms of subject matter or line length or syntax. So I like that influence as a way to get going 'cause it pushes me into a new place from from where I'm comfortable
[MARTIN] OK, interesting. Do you ever have you have experience writer's block?
[WHITTEMORE] Yes, I feel like writer's block is usually, um. I struggle with that term. I guess what I see writer's block as as just your imagination needs a little bit of help. You need a tool to help you through that moment of feeling stuck. And sometimes that tool is walking away from the page, and sometimes that tool is a writing prompt. But it's more of a writing like bump in the road than a wall. If you can make it that way.
[MARTIN] That is actually my follow up question. How do you then work through it?
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, yeah, I love writing prompts and for me I just create kind of a toolkit of writing prompts that I go to when I'm stuck, so that's usually writing in persona from a fairy tale character or some other character from literature. To get into a different mind space. I love writing poems in series, and so I have a few different series that are always on going that I can turn to when I don't know what else to write about.
[MARTIN] So do you typically write as yourself or do you write as a character or persona?
[WHITTEMORE] Usually the speaker in the poems is a close approximation of myself, but sometimes I try to get farther away from myself. So I've invented a few different characters for some poems and as I said, sometimes work with characters that I'm familiar with from literature.
[MARTIN] It seems like from reading your book you bring in a lot of maybe personal experiences into into what you write. Does that ever come back and or maybe people come back and they’re like, “Is that about me?” Or like, “You know that was mean, and you shouldn't write about me” or “Thank you for writing that about me.”
[WHITTEMORE] Um, for better or for worse? No, no one has had that conversation with me and I'm kind of thankful that they haven't.
[MARTIN] So I was when I was in high school. I was a drama nerd, but like a cool drama nerd...
[MARTIN] Yes obviously, and so I was trying out playwriting, and it wasn't half bad. So my senior year I wrote this play. Got straight-superiors at you know district. I'm not trying to brag, but I mean that's pretty good. Yeah, but so ex-girlfriend, ex-high school girlfriend was like, “That whole thing was about me, it was about me!” And I was like, "No, it wasn't,” and it really was, yeah. So that's why I gave up playwriting, just 'cause I was like I don't want those conversations.
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, yeah, they're not great. [laughter]
[MARTIN] So you mentioned reading other poets before you write. So who are some of your biggest influences in your writing?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, I would say there's a few people. The first poet that comes to mind is my former teacher Brigit Pegeen Kelly. She was my mentor at the University of Illinois and I think has one of the most, or had (she passed away in 2016), one of the most distinct voices in American poetry of the last 50 years. And I just really appreciated her focus on the Midwestern landscape and on weaving together these images that are both domestic and magical at the same time. And I also love Elizabeth Bishop for similar reasons, like a very distinct voice and a focus on imagery and place. And I try to use them both as good guidepost in my own work.
[MARTIN] So you bring up the place. Now you originally you went to school in Illinois, originally from Illinois, from the Midwest.
[WHITTEMORE] Yes, correct.
[MARTIN] So when I was reading your book, especially that first third, it really struck me as being southern, not necessarily southern writing, but influenced by the South. Yeah, but then I was like well, but I think she's actually from the Midwest, but you've lived in in Charlottesville and now here. And So what I mean, what role does geography and place have in your writing?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, well, it's really interesting to hear you say that because I was in Charlottesville when I was finishing Glass Harvest, and so I can certainly see how my experience of being there infused my memories of the Midwest in this sort of hybridizing of place. Uh, which I guess is a testament to the fact that place is very important to me. Be it the place that I'm physically writing in or the places that I'm thinking about in my poems. I feel very Midwestern, even though I've been in some place in the South for seven years now, um, so yeah, place is big for me.
[MARTIN] I guess my takeaway is as to why I thought the South. One, you use the name Hiram a couple of times, which is Hank Williams’ given name. And then there's stuff about like fruits and farms, which they have in Midwest, but to me, I was like, “Oh no, it's [the South.]”
Well, perhaps you, maybe you could. You could read one of your works for us right now.
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, I thought since it's fall and today is the fall equinox, I would read a poem called Autumn Thinking from Glass Harvest. I think that's all you need to know to go into it.
Yes, I'm talking about being a tree again. deciduous, thrumming with molt.
I admire sycamores, shedding their golden fleets
And think yes, let's learn finance chop wood, tattoo my arms with poppies, study entymolygy
Let's tap maples, shear sheep, discover rare fungi.
It's the air, I know it's the light, but my autumn other
She bites, less mirage than maniac.
Tree you're lucky to disperse tiny boats of yourself
Always new ones rocking briefly in your intricate harbor.
[MARTIN] Thank you. I never know kind of, once somebody reads something, how to sort of follow up, but that was really good.
[WHITTEMORE] Thank you!
[MARTIN] That’s the extent of my literary expertise, and I think we'll talk a little bit more, but at the end about how folks can get a copy of your book because it's excellent. What I found is that your work is very accessible, but there's so many layers to it. There's these multitudes in this work, and even listening to that now, after having read it, is like, oh I, there's all these things that I missed that first that first go around, so it's a great thing to come back to again and to learn more.
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, thank you. I think all poetry benefits from a second read.
[MARTIN] Who do you do you write for?
[WHITTEMORE] Oh wow, that is a question one of my writing groups has been talking about quite a bit. Um, I think, selfishly or not, I write for myself first. Poetry isn't going to win you $1,000,000 or get you elected to office or famous on Instagram or whatever it might be. I mean, maybe, there are some poet poets on Instagram that are pretty famous, but I guess first and foremost, I need to love doing the work and then the rest is lovely. Having readers is lovely, writing for certain people who are important to me, giving them gifts of poetry. I love doing that, but I use it as I have to want it in order to write the poems, and I have to enjoy it because otherwise there's lots of other things I could be doing with my time, right?
[MARTIN] Yeah, how do you then, sort of writing for yourself, You said you have to love it. But or maybe so, how do you make then to turn that into a connection that somebody else would want to read and say, oh, I can relate to that as well?
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah. I think we sometimes underestimate ability people's abilities to connect across poetry. I think if you're writing something that you are interested in that you think is beautiful or evocative, or strange or accessible, whatever the adjective you want to give it, there's likely going to be somebody else who thinks that too. Um, and we're all humans living on this earth, with all of its problems and beauty. And if you're writing about those problems and beauties, then I think other people will want to hear your perspective on that to enrich their own perspective on whatever the subject might be.
[MARTIN] I heard a story, kind of make a crude transition, but a black metal band which is this very sort of subgenre of heavy metal, so they made a new album and they said, you know, “we thought about it and we make music for ourselves and we don't care about an audience or anybody else.” So they took the master pressing and they took, and they carved cult KVLT, which is a black metal thing into it and then proceeded to press CDs and records from it. Which, of course, it was just noise. I mean you couldn't hear anything, so I thought that it might be a little bit extreme like so.
[WHITTEMORE] It's a little farther than when I take it. [laughter]
[MARTIN] Could you could publish your next book as all sort of blacked out and redacted.
[WHITTEMORE] Right [laughter]
[MARTIN] So I, in reading over your very lengthy list of publications on your CV, I got intrigued by one of the titles which is, My Boyfriend Says Poetry and NASCAR Are the Same. So that was published in Nashville Review and I looked it up. And then you took me one way with the title and then it took me another way into the poem. It caught my attention 'cause I'm an unironic NASCAR fan. OK, so fast cars going in circles, it really does it for me. Uh and then you have another poem in that same issue called Ode to My Late 30s Sex Drive and both of these make use of pop culture. So NASCAR. You mentioned Fame and Charles in Charge. A show that I absolutely love. Ad then you go in and you actually quote a part of the theme songs for both Fame and Charles in Charge. So what role does does pop culture play in your work? Was sort of a whimsy kind of thing? Or do you think it is sort of informs more of what you do?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, I think it drifts in and out of my work. I mean, I was certainly a child of the 80s. I loved watching Saturday morning cartoons and cheesy sitcoms. I still love cheesy sitcoms, so I feel like so much of my youth, and even now, like there's this sort of balance between watching something on a screen and going outside, and so my poems are either about being outside or about some weird pop culture thing. I wouldn't say that I, I would say if we had to give a percentage. Most of my poems are not very pop culture influenced. Largely because I guess even though I do watch a lot of nerdy things, I just keep re-watching the same things for whatever reason that is, we can, you know, analyze that later.
[MARTIN] Never ever worry that like the pop culture reference, maybe dates the work or makes it sort of inaccessible to someone. If you read that line “controls my days and my nights” – I completely got that. You know it's Charles in Charge, but someone else would be like, “I don't know what that means.”
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, I have a class at the University of Illinois. Read that that poem, and some of the students looked it up on YouTube 'cause they're like, “we didn't know what that was,” but they got the poem without that reference. So I feel like for literature to be of its time, it needs to be of its time. So that means that you'll have some references or slang in it that may not be accessible to a future audience, but that future audience doesn't exist yet. So if you are writing for yourself and for the people around you, I think touchstones that you're familiar with are well and good in poetry.
[MARTIN] Probably if you're if you're trying to write to be studied in an English class 100 years from now, you're not...
[WHITTEMORE] Well, are we even going to have English classes 100 years? I don't know if I'm gonna put my money on that one. And I don't think Shakespeare was worrying that, you know, we would have to like look up his words in 100 years or 400 years. So write what you want, right?
[MARTIN] Even someone like T.S. Eliot has kind of slang and stuff from the 20s.
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, it's so elusive like that's either part of the joy for you as a writer and reader, or it isn't, and I think either way it’s okay.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I can take the sort of ‘20s slang over the Greek and Latin that I have no idea [what it means].
[WHITTEMORE] [laughter] Yes, same.
[MARTIN] Would you like to read us another?
[WHITTEMORE] Sure. So in addition to organizing the Dream Geographies project, I'm working on a series of poems. One of my writer block escape routes where I try to focus on on a dream and distill it down to its central image, so this is The Snow Owl.
The snow owl waited for me at the center of a frozen pond.
Beneath my feet I could see the witless gaze of frozen fish.
A low winter sun raised the fields entrenched in snow.
And the cold burden of being alive, yet waiting.
The owl did not unfurl its wings.
Do not tap the ice with the talon.
Only watched me equivocate between worship and retreat.
It's goldeneyes tarnishing me.
[MARTIN] Excellent, thank you.
So you've mentioned this to dreams and Dream Geography. Do dreams play a role in your creative life?
[WHITTEMORE] Definitely. I feel like dreams are a place where your logical mind gets to take a break, and your intuitive mind gets to take control and make connections that you wouldn't normally get to. So that helps me with my poetry, certainly. It helps me be alive. I find that dreams help me process problems in waking life through through metaphor and story. As my dad would say, I would wake up in the morning at breakfast and just tell him my dreams every day as a child, and I still do that with anyone who will listen, yeah.
[MARTIN] I’m kind of fascinated by dreams and like why we actually dream, which no one really kind of understands and so I'll go through periods where I dream a lot, then I'll go through periods where I don't dream at all. And I like the periods where I dream a lot. Somehow it makes me a wake up feeling more refreshed or like there's some that kind of extra spark in my brain, and I will tell my dreams to anybody like and I know I bore them, but I'm like, “this is so weird you gotta hear this.”
Do you do any kind of mindfulness or meditation practice?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, no. It's the kind of thing that I wish that I did, but if I'm honest with myself, I don't. I mean, I try to do some yoga which approaches that. But, um, sitting down for a sitting meditation is very difficult for me.
[MARTIN] You can start at five minutes and work your way up.
[WHITTEMORE] That's what I hear.
[MARTIN] Because I'm a big fan of David Lynch, he talks about how he does transcendental meditation twice a day for 30-40 years, and he talks about the—Well, he's got a great book called Catching the Big Fish, so that that type of meditation helps you kind of transcend this sort of rational part of his brain and get down into where the really big ideas are in his brain and be able to to use them anytime. He talks about getting images. It's like somebody in another room is flicking in puzzle pieces. And yeah, he has to put the puzzle together. He’s an interesting man.
So, like all good sort of odd teenagers. I was a big fan of The Doors, and I also bought all of Jim Morrison’s poetry. You know something I didn't touch for a long time, it went back and was like oh The Doors music is still really good, at least to me. His poetry? Not so much.
So what what do you see the difference between a poem and a song?
[WHITTEMORE] That's not where I thought that question go. I was gonna be ready to talk about Jim Morrison. I feel like,a poem and a song share some territory, certainly in terms of using the musicality of language. A song has some friends helping it out, right? The different instruments, or sounds that a musician layers over the lyrics, and I think thus, a song can be simpler than a poem, in some ways. It can rely on more familiar language because that music surrounding it is giving it different depths and complexities that that language can't. And so a poem really has to like sweat a bit more to put across the same textured experiences to a listener of it.
[MARTIN] Yeah, the instrument sort of fill in the spaces song, yeah. But it doesn't take me that you know someone who's a good Lyricist and not a good writer of poetry in it. They seem so similar, but yeah.
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, definitely. Or like a really good poet doesn't necessarily make a good songwriter.
[MARTIN] So are you a Morrison fan?
[WHITTEMORE] I mean, I was the teenager with the Morrison books of poems. My best friend and I would memorize them and read them to each other like on field trips and stuff, so you saying that really sparked some nostalgia for me.
[MARTIN] Are you a fan of The Smiths?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, I'm only like, you know, familiar on the surface.
[MARTIN] So I had you, had you pegged as a Smiths fan, but–
[WHITTEMORE] I've heard that before. I’d say I’m one who hasn't found her way in yet.
[MARTIN] So now in in top of being this award-winning writer. You're also an award-winning teacher. And so what role does writing and language play in your teaching? How does it inform what you do in the classroom?
[WHITTEMORE] There certainly is some synergy. I feel like I try to give m y students the advice that I would like as a writer without turning them into mini-mes, which is a difficult balance to strike because you want them to discover their own voice and their own values in writing, but you also want to help them understand the foundations of strong writing and how to, once you mastered those foundations, you can go wherever you want to go, but you need to sort of know the playing field a bit better. That is sort of one of my guiding principles is invite them to find themselves as writers to have fun, to play, but to let them know more about... I don't like the word rules, but the conventions of different genres and how those genres can work for them, or how they can work against those conventions if they want to subvert form.
[MARTIN] So we are a library podcast, So what role have libraries played in your life and in your work.
[WHITTEMORE] I love libraries. I mean, I feel like a library is a refuge as well as a resource. As a young person, we had a like very tiny old town library and I just remember being able to walk in there and look at books and smell them. When I was really young, I didn't know that like I didn't. I had mixed up nonfiction and fiction, so I spent a lot of time in the nonfiction area looking for novels and failing but learning a lot about animals and plants. So it was a fortunate mistake as a child. So it had a very good impression on me as a developing writer and reader, and now as a established writer and reader, I don't know what I would do without libraries. I don't like reading things on screen from constantly pestering the interlibrary loan people find weird books for me. I love just wandering the stacks and seeing if the title catches my eye and going where it takes me.
[MARTIN] You don’t judge a book by its cover, do you?
[WHITTEMORE] I think we all judge covers. We can't help it. I try not to let that stop me if the cover isn't appealing to me.
[MARTIN] Speaking of books, so your book Glass Harvest published by Autumn House Press. What is the best way for someone who's interested in acquiring your book? What should they do?
[WHITTEMORE] Well, they can go to Amazon if they want to do that. Press also sells the books directly, so you can look up the Autumn House Press’ website. If you want to reach out to me, you can buy them directly from me and I can sign it. You can reach out through my website as well, which is just amiewhittemore.com.
[MARTIN] You did sign my copy.
[WHITTEMORE] Well, I was following pandemic protocol. I didn’t wanna open the book and get all my germs up in there. I can sign it after this.
[MARTIN] I'm a little offended that you offered everybody else.
[WHITTEMORE] Well, I'm trying to make money now.
[MARTIN] So perhaps, if you have another poem.
[WHITTEMORE] Yeah, I chose one more to share. I have a what I hope is a finished manuscript making the poetry contest rounds, and this is a poem from that. I also like writing about the moon, and I have a moon series and this is sort of a poem that got me towards the moon series, and it's called Lunar Eclipse.
Though I marked my calendar
I'll forget to watch Earth paint the moon
Grey and black and white again.
White as toothache, dry elbow skin
Crown of Bones, as I imagine a narwhal's tusk
Though I've never seen one.
Tonight I dip that Tuscan my wine glass
To prevent all future hangovers
All future gloomy moods
where I pretend I'll look up the etymology of Melancolia, but don't.
Where I pretend I need a spouse to soothe me. But I don't.
Like it won't say earth or moon, but like a shovel and purposeful, but often idle.
Collecting cobwebs is a passing, though fulfilling hobby.
Someday I hope to be less shovel more soil.
Prepped for roots, for thriving.
Love, I want to say, to whom I'm not sure.
I've come to a different power tonight.
This is the self, stripped of alimonies, stripped of pearls.
Unforgivable, unrelenting, cherished by no one
Not you wife, nor you husband, not even you dear Moon
Whom I want to see cloaked but won't, clouds tonight.
Bats feeding them, at least, I think so.
Maybe smaller darknesses are just that, smaller and thus personable.
[MARTIN] That was terriffic. It's been great talking to you. Great having you on Open Stacks. any kind of words or wisdom you want to send everybody out on?
[WHITTEMORE] Um, take a deep breath. Wear your mask. And enjoy what you can in this crazy year that were in.
[MARTIN] Thank you very much, appreciate it.
[MARTIN] Thank you for listening to Open Stacks, a podcast to the James E. Walker Library. Learn more about the Walker Library. Visit us on the web at library.mtsu.edu. On Facebook, at MTSU library. On Twitter at @mtsulibrary or on Instagram at @walkerLibrary.
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Thank you and have a great day.
[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast of the James E. Walker Library. I am your host Interim Dean of the James E. Walker Library Jason Martin, and I'm joined on today's episode by lecturer in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University and affiliated faculty member of the Women's and Gender Studies Program. Dr. Shane McCoy.
Dr. McCoy teaches undergraduate courses that focus on first year composition, African American literature, and gay and lesbian literature. Dr. McCoy earned their bachelor's degree in English and a minor in women's and gender studies at MTSU and completed their Ph. D. at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to the University of Washington, their teaching experiences prior to MTSU include Volunteer State Community College and Tennessee Technological University. Dr. McCoy's research interests include instructional scaffolding and curriculum design, feminist effects studies, Africana women's literature, cognitive literary studies, sociology of education, and social and emotional learning. In 2018-2019, Dr. McCoy received the designation of Faculty Fellow after completing the Faculty Fellows program offered by the Lucinda Taylor Lee Learning, Teaching and Innovative Technology Center at MTSU. Dr. McCoy is also certified in MTSU's Safe Zone Training program, designed to support LGBTQ+ students and is certified in mental health first aid. Dr. McCoy currently serves as an Advisory Board member for the 2020 LGBT+ College Conference at MTSU.
And Shane and I actually spoke via Zoom due to their remote teaching duties. So, the audio quality is a little bit different than a typical podcast, but I know you’ll enjoy it, nonetheless.
Alright, so I have the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Shane McCoy today about their concept of daring pedagogy. So, this is based on the research and writing of Dr. Brené Brown. Specifically, her work on vulnerability in such books as Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead. Welcome, Shane. How are you?
[SHANE MCCOY] I'm good, doing good for Tuesday afternoon.
[MARTIN] Yes, one step closer to Friday. So, I thought we could start off if you could give us an overview of daring pedagogy. So, what is it, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
[MCCOY] Yeah, so well I can start with the genesis of the of the faculty learning community on daring pedagogy. It really began with looking at Brené Brown’s research on what she calls daring leadership. Looking at her research specifically in Dare to Lead, but also because I love just working with Brené Brown and talking about Brené Brown, and the fact that I get to do it for over an hour in this podcast is lovely. But it's really taking her body of research, you know, beginning with her earliest work, The Gifts of Imperfection, moving to Daring Greatly to Rising Strong, to Braving the Wilderness, to Dare to Lead, and really synthesizing a lot of that research in creating this pedagogical model to work from. And at the root of this pedagogical model, is working through the concept of what she describes as vulnerability, but also working through her concept of looking at shame, right? And how shame and vulnerability play off of one another in various ways.
I wanted to work with Brené Brown for so long because in Daring Greatly, and in the introduction to Daring Greatly, she has this really great quote about how academia socializes academics to wear the pedantic like a badge of honor and it’s like something that is meant to be good. To present yourself as you know, unfeeling and completely objective. You know almost the type of a nonhuman, right? And in academia, it's a badge of honor to be labeled pedantic, whereas in other disciplines, she tends to argue that being called pedantic is actually an insult.
And so, I begin with thinking about, well, what does it mean to break down this mantle of armor that we think of through using the pedantic as as a mantle, right? As a type of protection against vulnerability, a type of protection against really getting to know our colleagues, but also getting to know our students. And you know part of the daring pedagogy framework--the second half of that was looking at, what are the ways in which we model that type of pedagogical commitment? How do we model vulnerability in the classroom? How do we model, you know, shame resilience in the classroom? How do we model working with boundaries, working with accountability, and so it's really looking at the various ways in which, you know, individual instructors and professors could model this type of pedagogy, and seeing the extent to which it was effective or not effective? So, it's really about looking at the efficacy of a type of daring pedagogy and the extent to which it impacted students learning.
And so, I was really interested in thinking about this model of vulnerability with wedding it to pedagogy but then also marrying it to student outcomes. So, the question becomes, you know, to what extent does an individual instructor’s modeling of vulnerability impact students learning an impact student learning outcomes? Do students learn better from individual professors that are more vulnerable in the classroom, and that they were able to maybe create more substantial connections with through the mechanism of vulnerability? It was really just looking at these various types of things, not just looking at it from the pedagogical commitments of individual instructors but looking at the ways in which those pedagogical commitments influenced and affected the learning in the classroom. So that's really the overarching scheme of looking at daring pedagogy.
[MARTIN] Yeah, good thank you, and so lots of good follow up questions there. But first, you know this word vulnerability and so everybody has their own idea when they hear it. I think years ago, I came across Brené Brown's Ted Talk on vulnerability and I got like 30 seconds in, and I was like, “Nope. Sorry, don't do that. Click. Stop.” And it wasn't actually until I heard you talking about some of her books that I read Daring Greatly, and I was very skeptical going in. But I really, really enjoyed it. So you know, define vulnerability for us. So, what do you mean and what does Brené Brown mean when she when she talks about this?
[MCCOY] Yeah, so I'll actually speak to your first point about not wanting to engage vulnerability and not wanting to engage Brené Brown. I had a very similar reaction, and I think this this idea of well-being and a lot of it comes down from, you know, the bad rap that positive psychology gets, but I think there's a. there's a certain level of skepticism that comes with looking at the research. And I am, you know, to be quite honest. I am the biggest skeptic, and I think our academic training socializes us to be skeptical of everything.
So, when I was introduced to Brené Brown's work, it was actually in one of the faculty book clubs for the Slow Professor last year, and in the conclusion of the Slow Professor, they reference Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection, and I had heard about Brené Brown, but I didn't really know anything about her. As I was reading the Slow Professor, I was like, this is interesting that they're referencing, you know, The Gifts of Imperfection, so that's where my Brené Brown journey started, with the Gifts of Imperfection. But I needed to hear it from, you know, an academic book, well, such an academic book like the Slow Professor, yeah? But it just resonated with me in a completely different type of terrain, and so I totally get where you're talking about being skeptical because yeah that was totally me too, especially with my research in critical, infamous pedagogy.
There's a lot of criticism around this whole idea of free enterprise, and you know we have the Charles Koch Foundation. They funnel a lot of money toward these academic enterprises and it's all framed in terms of you know, promoting “well being." So, there's a sense of reaction toward seeing this type of project as like a neoliberal project.
But to go back to vulnerability. For me, vulnerability, and from what I understand from the way in which Brené Brown defines this in a variety of her work, is that vulnerability is really about the root of human connection. The root of establishing basic human connections in a particular space, and for her, I would argue that this is the same is true for me as well. Vulnerability is not about, you know. It's not about the TMI, it's not about creating too much or sharing too much information. It's about using one's personal experiences as a way of moving a learning process forward or a way of moving a process forward. So it's not about, you know, she calls it floodlighting because it's like someone shares something with someone else and your automatic reaction is to like look away, right? Like that that floodlighting effect because it's too much. But I think that to think about the ways in which vulnerability is theorized by Brené Brown, in a lot of ways, goes against this idea of this rugged individualism, right? That you know, we like to pride ourselves on in the United States, is like the triumph of the individual, right? But with vulnerability it's it goes back to the heart of human connection. It goes back into looking at, you know, how do we create these authentic connections with one another?
And for me, I'm really interested in how we do this in the space of the classroom and thinking about you know how vulnerable the learning process really is, you know. So I teach writing. That's like my primary subject that I teach. It’s first year composition. I actually teach second year lecture classes. I do the gay and lesbian lecture class every year, and I also do special topics in women's and gender studies. That's queer theory, and we just piloted that course this fall that I'm teaching. But regardless of the class I teach, there's an integral component of using writing as a catalyst for thinking about the material in the content, right? And so, I'm convinced and, you know, research tends to suggest this, but students absolutely hate writing because it is one of the most vulnerable acts you can participate in. You know, to produce a piece of writing for anyone is incredibly vulnerable, and because I typically teach subjects and material that are really personal, for students, it's no wonder that they hate the writing process because they're having to really engage with the material, but also, they're having to, you know, create their own ideas and their own arguments about the material.
And for a lot of students, especially first year freshmen, but also sophomores and juniors and seniors, they're worried about saying something wrong, right? So there's that level of if I say this, how will someone respond? There's that level of vulnerability of being wrong or being incorrect, and so vulnerability is intrinsic to the learning process, and it's one of the things that I don't think we do enough of, in terms of sharing with students that you're gonna get it wrong, you're gonna fail, but it's OK, and that's actually part of the process, right? That you know, if you're not getting things wrong, and if you're not failing, well then the question is, you know, are you taking the necessary risks that you need to in order to get from one point to the next. And so that's a really roundabout way of describing vulnerability in various ways, but it really comes back to, you know, the root of human connection, of establishing human connection from a place of authenticity, and not from a place of oversharing. Or, you know, as Brown calls it, floodlighting, but using it as as a type of as a type of tool, right? To move the process forward, especially with learning.
[MARTIN] I know in Dare to Lead, she refers to it as “shock and awe,” that oversharing. And so I've been in those situations with people who just kind of let it all hang out and you're like, “let's put some boundaries around that.” So Brené Brown, you know, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” and that really nothing can happen important without those things. So just you know, even if you try to make a connection with somebody else. You know, asking somebody on a date or just you know, talking to them as trying to open up a connection as a friendship or work or anything. You know, you write something you send it off to a reviewer. There is all of that uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure there. But if you want to accomplish anything or do anything, you have to be willing to do those things, yeah. And in writing, it took me a long time to get comfortable sending things off to reviewers and journals, and in that sense of dread when you get those comments back, you know. And learning how to deal with all that that stuff because there's a lot of you in that, even in something that is this kind of—I'm using air quotes--”emotionless academic writing.” You know there's a lot of you that you put into that, so it is difficult, yeah?
[MCCOY] And it's something that I tell my students, you know? And the feeling is typically like you're bracing for impact after you give them their first essays back because you're just bracing for their reaction that they might have about not receiving a good grade or something. And I'm very clear with my students ever since I've been reading Brown's work, is that they have to create distance between the work that they're producing and themselves, right? That creating boundaries between themselves and their work, that this grade is not a reflection of them as individuals, right? This is simply a grade on a paper, and that's really hard to do because there is so much of an emotional investment into the work that we produce. But then that's where, you know, Brown talks about the concept of shame, right? And you know, she says, once our self-worth is attached to our product, it's like we're forever caught in that bind. She says it's kinda like Hotel California. You can check in, but you can never check out right?
And so, part of the project of looking at daring pedagogy is getting students to think about their self-worth in a framework that is much bigger than the classroom. That is much bigger than that history exam that they're going to take or the science quiz that they're going to take. That, you know, your self-worth is more than simply a grade that you receive on a paper. And I think you know if we think of the history of education and think about how we've been socialized in educational settings, so much of our self-worth is attached to what we receive on a paper in terms of a grade. And so, part of it is simply getting students to use that skill set of, you know, as Brown calls it, shame resilience. Using it as a type of practice, that in order to really get good at separating yourself from your work well, you have to practice it, right?
And one of the ways in which students practice at least in composition, is simply reflecting on that process, right? What was it like to receive a grade on a particular assignment that you thought you did well on, for instance, right? Now that you've received the grade, what could you learn from the process? Sometimes I think reflection, and I was speaking with my sister-in-law about this, but I think reflection in the corporate role gets a really bad rap because I think a lot of employees might see it as simply their boss rubbing their nose in their mistakes. But really, you know reflection is integral to learning, right? It's not about rubbing your nose in your mistake. It's about you know, OK, where could you do better next time, right? And it's about learning from those past mistakes as a way of moving through the shame, right? You know, for Brown the only way out, is through, and moving through that process.
[MARTIN] When you read a lot of leadership literature, which I do, one of the things, and whether it's in academic leader, corporate leader, wherever, finding time for reflection is really, really hard. because your calendar is just full. But it's so important to be able to figure out like well, did I actually do as well as I could have? How can I improve? What can I learn from that interaction or that project or that whatever? And so, it's really, really important in all aspects of our life.
So what does what does faculty vulnerability look like in the classroom?
[MCCOY] So it's really comprised of a lot of different things. One of the levels of faculty vulnerability is simply modeling boundary-setting, right? So, you know, the question for faculty could be are we sending out email on Saturday morning? Are we sending out email over spring break to our students, right? So those are the types of boundaries I think about. You know, those explicit modeling of those boundary settings. I like to tell my students that when there's a university break, take the break, right? Because it's not always going to be there. But not only that, it's like this American sense of work is like, you know, we have to constantly be working, and that rest it cannot even be on the table as something we could do. But that's one of the types of boundaries is simply, you know, thinking about how often we're giving work to our students. When are we giving that work? Are you sending out emails to your students on Saturday morning, maybe? You know, are you checking email at midnight as you're lying in bed, right? Yeah, so that's one explicit way of setting types of boundaries.
Another layer of vulnerability is also making oneself and others accountable, right? One of my favorite terms I love using with my students is accountability, right? You know, accountability is a two-way street. It's you taking responsibility for the material, but it’s also you also asking the appropriate questions that you need in order to be successful, right? And so, you know with question-asking, comes that level of vulnerability of not wanting to look quote, unquote stupid, right? Or not wanting to seem incompetent, are not wanting to be presented as not knowing, right? And I think that's one of the reasons that students don't ask a lot of questions whenever they get an assignment first, and I'm also thoroughly convinced that the number one reason why students do not use our office hours is because you know, in the United States and across the world we have this this idea of help-seeking behavior and and help-accepting behavior makes you ashamed, right? That to accept help to seek out help is a big no-no. How dare you do that? Like, are you not good enough to do it on your own, right? This is the rugged individualism.
And so those are other things, like do faculty ask for help from their students, right? Do faculty own up to mistakes, right? If you make a mistake on, you know, a student's grade. I make a lot of typing errors on my assignment sheet. And so, in real time, I will actually fix my mistakes while students sit there and it will probably take like 30 seconds, and I'll just fix it as I go through that. And, post the correct document where it needs to be on D2L. Or sometimes I'll forget to do something, and I'll simply say, ”Oh no, I forgot to do that. So, let me do it now.” You know, take the 30 seconds, fix it and get it right. Because it's not about being right, it's about getting it right.
And another level of vulnerability that we've been seeing a lot lately, especially these past six months with the remote learning situation, is a lot of teachers are spending an incredible amount of time like perfecting their zoom videos. And so, I have a rule, and I really try to stick to this rule. I do all my videos in one take. One time, I had my cat in the background and he was in his cat tower and I just rolled with it right? Just like in a real-life classroom. You know, if your cat showed up in your real-life classroom, you're not going to stop your class, yeah. Oh, rewind the tape, and so it all goes back into that. That type of perfectionism that I think that a lot of us struggle with is that we need to create the perfect zoom tutorial, or we need to create the perfect image in order to be seen as the worthy for students?
So, I also do work on drag performance, saying drag as corrective is pedagogy and one of the things I like thinking of doing and my own pedagogical commitments is this idea of pedagogical realness, right? That you know, like RuPaul says, as was made famous with Paris is Burning, this idea of realness, right? And so, what is this idea of realness that I mean? It's really about being authentic. There's a level of authenticity that goes into that, but also authenticity is synonymous with accountability, right? If you're not living up to, or if you're not following through with your responsibilities and your priorities, then that's clearly something that one would have to take a step back and say, “OK, where could I do better next time,” right? But I always like thinking of accountability as a two-way street. As a professor, I am going to do what I say, I'm going to give my students the tools that they need to be successful, and if I haven't done that, it's about owning up to it. OK. How can I do a better next time? Yeah, as opposed to self-flagellation like, “how dare you do that?” Which is super easy to go into, you know?
So, I'm speaking from the standpoint of someone who is a millennial. I'm 34. Fairly young in terms of academic standards. You know, early on in my career it was really easy for me to spend a certain amount of time just through self-flagellation, like you know you didn't do it good enough or it could have been better. Or you know what were you thinking, right? Working through the shame spiral that I think a lot of us teachers live in because we attach our self-worth to our teaching and that was a really big lightbulb for me. It's like you know a shame trigger for me is being called a bad teacher or being called irresponsible or not owning up to a mistake. It's really about taking away this facade that I feel like, uh, that I was socialized within academia to present myself as all-knowing to, you know, make that PowerPoint slide perfect to the only paper worth submitting to a journal was the perfect paper. And there are all these really damaging narratives of perfectionism that I got ingrained with early on in my graduate school training, and that took me quite a few years to get out of. I think helping students also get out of those narratives of perfectionism is also a type of responsibility that I think daring pedagogy lends itself to. So that's a number of ways I see that faculty can exercise this type of vulnerability in a classroom.
But it really comes down to individual qualities and characteristics that one thinks is valuable or what they think is a priority for them, right? And so, if a priority for someone is to, you know, maybe they want to create better boundaries between their work life and in their home life, especially when it's the same space these days, right? Yeah, like my classroom is my office at home, and I see myself really struggling with boundaries for the most part lately because I want to be accountable to my students and I want to be accountable to other people. But it often comes at the expense of saying “OK, do we need to take a step back?" I think that's one of the things I struggled with when we went to the remote learning classroom stage back in March. I think a lot of us felt like we had to be constantly attached to our email, right? And, you know, you should be responding to email within a matter of three seconds of you receiving it. But going back into vulnerability, it's also about recognizing what is realistically possible, right? It's not realistically possible to respond to every single email within three minutes, right? And I think that's where the vulnerability comes into play as well. It's about, you know, whatever one is charting out. Is it realistic? Is it doable? Is it practical?
[MARTIN] Yeah, when we made the decision to go remote, you know, Wednesday afternoon, I think the email went out. I think for the next 48 hours, my phone really never stopped vibrating. You get into this like fight-or-flight-or-freeze mindset in reaction to everything that's going on, and it took me a long time before I finally just said I cannot live like this. And like the emergency part is over, and I need to get out of that. It was a difficult transition because it was every time something beeped or vibrated, I gotta go answer that email and like, no, I actually have other things that I need to work on and do. It was very difficult.
You know, you've brought up shame a couple of times, and especially when it comes to help, seeking and accepting help, even just asking questions. And I found myself in that for a long time. You know, working in academia, having conversations with people where I did not understand some of the words that were being said and making mental notes to go look up what those words meant because you don't want look, you know, stupid. And then of course, we get into this that, well, I'm sure they're talking about me afterwards like this guy didn't know what that word meant, but they're not. I mean no one sits around and thinks about other people that much.
Did you reference Kristin Neff in in your FLC? As in the mindful self0compassion, and I when I read her book, she has a thing like well, how would you respond to someone who told you this or ask you that and that really changed my mindset. Well, if somebody asked me a question I'd be like, hey, that's a good question and thanks for asking, and you explain it and then you move on and do whatever. And relating to it that way was really a key for me to change that mindset. That asking questions about what something means or I don't understand that is, you know, it's a good thing.
[MCCOY] Also you know that’s something that comes from Brown's work too when we're thinking about vulnerability is that, and it goes hand-in-hand with shame, we have a tendency personally to shame others in those areas that we feel shame the most, right? And so, and I often see this, that if someone is uncomfortable with another person's vulnerability, then that has nothing to do really with that other person. It's about who is having that reaction in that moment about someone else's vulnerability. That this is really a way of thinking about one's own vulnerability and how one is responding to other people's vulnerability as well. And so, I always like thinking of that as well when thinking about comments, right? And this is really important with thinking about evaluations from students, but also from faculty. That the comments are more of a reflection of the speaker than the person who is receiving the comments, right? To think about how those various comments are reflecting certain levels of vulnerability as well.
[MARTIN] I was reading something because you think about the debates online, or debates some using air quotes again. But on Twitter or comments and all this sort of stuff, and one of the things people have talked about is that because all of this is being done while no one's looking at each other, all this is being typed online, that there's no human interaction, so there's this complete lack of empathy. So, if I start I if I start berating you and tearing you apart, I start to see reactions in you that this is hurtful or you're becoming angry, and I start to change my response to that out of empathy and how that is missing when we just give these comments. And years ago, because after getting comments back, either from reviewers or from colleagues on promotion, readiness, and all that sort of stuff. And I just said I'll never write anything to anybody that I would not sit down and say to their face in the exact same words and that really, really helped me to be able to deliver things, deliver a message that needs to be heard, but in a way that it will actually be heard and received.
[MCCOY] Yeah, that that reminds me of Brown's The Man in the Arena speech, where she's quoting from Theodore Roosevelt. It's not the critic who counts, right? And you know, I struggle with this too. Is the person in the arena with you or are they on the sidelines, right? And that's really when we have to think about the feedback that we receive. Is that feedback coming from someone in the arena with you or is it coming from someone who is sitting on the sidelines which are simply the cheap seats, right? That's helped me a lot. Is thinking about you know, whose criticism actually matters, right?
You know, Brené Brown has this, this tool that she calls the Square Squad, right? She says write on a 1”x1” inch post-it the names of people who really matter to you. It's like a really small piece of paper, and you'll probably only get two or three names on there, and that's it. That's all you need. That's all that is. Only the people whose opinions of you matter. Not someone on Facebook land, right?
It reminds me of something I tell my students too, especially whenever we're just we're moving into discussion and debate about certain topics. I always tell them, you know, the classroom is not your Facebook news feed. You can't simply hide someone or mute someone in a conversation, just because you don't like what they're saying, right?
There's a really good documentary that I saw about two weeks ago called the Social Dilemma. It was produced by Netflix.
[MARTIN] I haven't seen it. It's on my ever-growing Netflix to-watch this, but yes.
[MCCOY] It's really interesting. I think one of the dangers though, is that, at least in the modern day, we have a tendency to see social media as the cause, when really it's just symptomatic. It's simply taking advantage of particular ideologies that already there and is just amplifying them even more, right?
[MARTIN] Yeah, and people have criticized social media. That it's divided us and kind of further isolated us, but I said, “No. I think it's actually a symptom of our existing isolation.” That it was kind of a cure that, well, you can now connect with people, which has kind of exacerbated the situation of isolation and social disconnection. Sort of ironically.
[MCCOY] Yeah, that was another, to go back into thinking about during pedagogy. That was another concept I was thinking about with my daring pedagogy FLC, which is how do we create belonging in the classroom, right? And you know I'd be curious to know, because I've spoken with a few of my freshmen about this. You know, one of the dilemmas that many of us face this semester was, do we go back to in-person classes or do we stay with remote classes? If we go back to in-person classes, there are all these social distancing guidelines that we have to follow. For instance, in a classroom of 20 students, we could only have seven or eight of them in there at time, right? And there could be no collaboration in terms of, you know, the class work. There could be no collaboration, hardly anything. Students would have to be spaced out, and one of my students made a really good point over a zoom call, that even in the in-person classes that she had; she still couldn't carry on a conversation with someone because they are 10 feet away. Then they're also wearing a mask, and so once we get it, whenever we do get past this, I'd be curious to know how student interaction, but also how interaction in general changes.
Before the lockdown six months ago, you would walk into a classroom and all 20 students would be on their phone, right? No one would be talking to anyone. And now we're grieving over this loss of connection, and so this is one of the hopeful things I think might come out of the situation, my hope is that we start to see the value of actually being in the same space with one another. That it's not simply about coming to class and signing in for Dr. McCoy's first year composition class. Class is about being with people in the space of the classroom and really experiencing what that feels like as a type of vulnerability that we're incredibly becoming more and more socialized to avoid. Right? Thanks to smartphones and thanks to you know, technology. And so, I think the challenge for us is to think about, now that we've been socialized that way, how do we undo that socialization? How do we work against that socialization process? And it's all about thinking about what is our default setting. Is our default setting to escape from the situation by going to our phones right? By checking our notifications. By avoiding the vulnerability that we are not comfortable with, right? And so, it's also about practicing that. It's about, you know, noticing when you get a notification to not touch the phone, but maybe turn to your neighbor and say, “how was your day?” or “what is your name?” even. I see students that don't even know the names of the people that sit around them in the classes, which is always remarkable.
[MARTIN] And to me it's been interesting because nationally, the conversation from the student side is that the disadvantage of these remote classes is you lose the on-campus experience. Being in the classroom, being around people for conversations. But yet, we see so much behavior, which is, you know, head down, nose into the phone, and so it's been interesting, and it really is going to be fascinating to see what it looks like when we come back. And I don't know that we'll ever be back to sort of how we were before, but when there's so much more face-to-face classes and on-campus activity, what do people's interactions look like and how have they changed.
[MCCOY] I feel like because we have short memories, it’ll probably take a week or so and people will revert back to their old ways, unfortunately. But one can hope. We’ll see.
[MARTIN] So, in talking about all of this technology and all of the remote classes. I mean, do you find it harder to practice vulnerability and to model that for your students in in this remote setting?
[MCCOY] I personally don't because I'm perfectly comfortable being in front of my computer camera. I do a lot of Zoom tutorials. For several weeks of the semester, my students were looking at a cat tower and my cat’s litter box. I mean, this is this is a really interesting moment because you get to see where your teacher lives, right? And I always thought that was interesting, like when we had the department faculty meeting for English. The first one we had several weeks ago, I was more interested in what people had behind them. I'm just nosey, I guess, I see it as adding a different layer of vulnerability, of not just creating a fetish, so to speak, of the teacher, but to see each and every person in the Zoom call in their own personal space. I think it actually adds various layers of vulnerability, right? Because you're able to see a colleague's messy office or you're able to see that interesting paint choice that they chose for their office bowl, or you get to hear their dog. You know, interrupting them several times.
My dog will just bark ferociously at the door and a delivery person. Yeah, and you know, it's like you're having to deal with a real life as you're dealing with your professional life at the same time. And so, I think it creates a really good moment to exercise that vulnerability in a different way.
Yeah, even though it's definitely not on the same scale of being in an in-person classroom setting or being in in-person meetings, it's a different level of vulnerability to think about. You know, does it matter that you're wearing a tie or not right? In that meeting, for the most part, like you're lucky to have clothes on. Like, it's a global pandemic, the bar for professionalism, I think it’s still there. Sometimes I'll see colleagues and faculty, and you can tell they totally like dressed to the nines, and I'm like showing up in my glasses and with bed head. Yeah, it's like here we are.
[MARTIN] This is interesting, kind of. I don't know, subculture’s not the right word, but examinations of celebrities and famous people who, when they're doing some kind of Zoom call or because there's all these remote events that are happening, and so many of them are sitting in front of a bookcase filled with these big thick books. So, one is examining what books are actually on their shelf, and you know, they move like the Nietzsche and James Joyce and Toni Morrison all down, so you can see them like the look smart and sensitive I am, you know. And I'm just like I bet you haven't even you probably rented those books, you know.
[MCCOY] From the public library!
[MARTIN] Yes, yes. But you know, you talk about you seeing people in their real space in their home and this level of authenticity. And too often when we get in academia, we try to emulate that character in a movie with the tweed Jacket and the leather patches and the pipe and all that sort of stuff. But you know, we're all over the place when you talk to people and what their interests are, who they are and where they come from, and it's that to me is the interesting, fascinating thing. How people got here and the fact that they you know this person likes Iron Maiden and this person listens to Miles Davis. And you know, and all the all that kind of stuff. To me, that's a really fascinating thing. The human beings behind all this.
[MCCOY] Yeah, to go back to Dare to Lead. In Dare to Lead, she opens up with giving this talk and she keeps reminding herself that these are just people. That they're not necessarily any different from this person or that person. They're just people. And she constantly repeats this phrase. People, people, people, right? To remind herself that these are just people, and it's making me more aware of that as we're doing these Zoom calls from people's houses, right? And you know, their kids come in, or their kids interrupt them, or their dog interrupts them. It‘s a reminder that we're, I hate using that phrase, we're all in this together and we're all part of the same human condition. We're all subject to the same human condition in a variety of ways, and that there's no way of escaping it, right? You can sequester yourself to your office as much as you want to, but is your four-year-old going to let that happen? Probably not.
[MARTIN] So, for faculty who are interested in sort of taking this practice of vulnerability into their classroom, to make those connections and create that sense of belonging and culture of belonging. What are some things that they could do? Kind of a top two or three things they could put in practice now to help with that?
[MCCOY] Yeah, I would say to think about how to create belonging in the classroom and through this lens of vulnerability. It really comes down to your specific situation. I would say for remote classes in particular, it's really about creating an online presence, so to speak. Like I transitioned to doing video updates exclusively last spring because I got tired of typing. So, I kind of stole this idea from Dr. Steve Severn, who is our chair in English, and he does these weekly video updates. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is brilliant.” It's almost like seeing the person in front, but it's not. And I think creating this this type of atmosphere of being present through a video screen is really helpful, so that could be one way, especially if you're in the remote learning classroom.
And I know for a good many of my colleagues who are doing asynchronous classes, I think the more that we create this online presence, the better. Even though we might not have our students directly in front of us. I did an informal evaluation with my students last semester and I'll do the same thing next week with my students this semester, and you know, one of the pieces of feedback they gave me is that they found the weekly updates really helpful. Just seeing a video of their teacher to let them know that their teacher actually exists and is still there, right? So that's one way.
For in-person classes, one of the things that I do when I'm in an in-person class is I have students do meditation and I haven't done that. I haven't done it on the Zoom calls. Just because, it's being efficient with time, but in a regular semester, I do meditation with my students and one of the things I get students to think about with the various meditations that we do is, I ask them, “what are you struggling with today?” Right? Like literally, what are you struggling with? Are you struggling with the fact that you're having to go to your job after this? Or are you struggling with the fact that you're not doing so well in your classes? Like what're you emotionally struggling with, and I think relating to a student's emotional struggles and also sharing your own is also incredibly helpful. Especially in the middle of the semester and toward the end of the semester. So, you know, “how are things going?”
I'm like, you know, well I have over 100 papers to grade and I have all these various other responsibilities I need to do and people are doing these things at the last minute. And it's not about oversharing, it's about creating a type of connection that we all have these various competing demands on our time, and it's all about creating a space where we can come together and share in the fact that we all have multiple and competing demands, and that we're not in this by ourselves.
One of the things I often talk with my students is the importance of having someone to speak with, in terms of whether it's a therapist or, you know, having a friend. But one of the things I told a student via email about a week ago is that they are not in this alone. That there are people that will help in help them navigate this particular situation, whether it be an intellectually difficult situation or emotionally difficult situation. Because fun fact, often though the same.
But yeah, it's about getting to know your students, but understanding you know we have to do our own work first, like Pema Chodron has a really lovely quote from one of her books, and she's a very well-known meditation teacher. I think she's also a Buddhist monk. She has this quote about we have to tend to our own kingdom first before we can serve others, right? Or before we can, especially those of us in the helping profession, that we have to put our own kingdom in order first, right? And so that's the type of work we need to do individually before we can ever think about creating belonging in the classroom. Before we can ever think about, you know, making ourselves vulnerable in the classroom, have we done our own personal work? Or have we done our own soul work, as I like to call it. It’s about digging up various types of traumas that one is dealing with.
One of the things I've been thinking about lately is this idea of microaggressions, right? And thinking of various types of microaggressions as sources of trauma, and so there's a really great book. I'm trying to remember her name, but there's a book called the Trauma Sensitive Classroom, and she also writes, I think her name is Patricia Jennings. I could be wrong. I want to say she's at the University of Virginia, but she writes about a lot and investigates the role of mindfulness in the classroom. And there's all this attention also to being aware of trauma. How does trauma inform the classroom, and how does it impact the learning situation?
And so that's another way of thinking about ones pedagogical limit is, you know, are we sensitive to these various types of life experiences? Yeah, I had a students last year, and I have various students tell me interesting stories, bad ones, too. But I had one student in particular, tell me a story that professor, I don't know which discipline this is and it could be simply hearsay, but it wouldn't surprise me, but at any rate, the professor said something about if a student comes to him crying, he has to walk away, right? And I'm just like, the walking away has absolutely nothing to do with the student. It's about the individual instructor or professor. They have not done the work necessary to be able to be with that student in a moment, right? It takes a certain level of vulnerability and comfort, right? Because it's all about one’s comfort to vulnerability and vulnerability is inherently discomforting. It is about exercising that discomfort and being comfortable with the uncomfortable, right?
So, I think there's a variety of ways, but I think we can exercise that those types of vulnerabilities. It's kind of like moving beyond the curriculum, although I think the curriculum can become a catalyst for thinking about these various vulnerabilities. Or simply just having five minutes at the beginning of a class and asking students how they are. I think it's also important that we practice vulnerability with one another, right? As our colleagues, if you see someone in the in the break room or at heating up their lunch. As I often see, or used to see, when I was in my office. Like, “how was your weekend?” And a lot of times, it was just these rage sessions with a colleague that was really therapeutic, right? Because we got to see, oh, we're both struggling with very similar issues. And that these are not simply issues that are just intrinsic to one person, but they're intrinsic to simply being human. I think that's what Brown, that's really what she reminds us of. How human these connections are.
To go back to this creation of stories that we tell ourselves. Like you were speaking to, you know, being in a meeting and not understanding what someone is saying or word that someone is using and then creating these stories. That these are simply stories, and you know everybody creates stories about themselves and they are typically ego-driven in a variety of ways, and Brown does a really good job of, she calls them reality-checking the stories, right? Reality-checking the validity of these narratives that we tell ourselves and then thinking about it. Well, how do we know that's true?
[MARTIN] Yeah, the story I'm telling myself right now is ... That book is the Trauma Sensitive Classroom by Patricia Jennings.
A year and a half ago, we regularly do this assessment in the library so we will put up a flipchart or whiteboard and ask questions and then they can write their answers up there. And so, a year and a half or so ago, we asked like what would you like the library to have? And so, you get some joke responses. People put like a nap room, a prayer room, and then it would be like a crying room. And then you started to see these answers over and over again. You're like, actually now I'm worried about our students because they do deal with so many things that I didn't deal with as a college student or have to think about. Whether that's having to work full time and make rent and help maybe even help support their parents and siblings and all this other stuff. And there is so much going on and so much stress that like they just want a place they can go and cry and release, and you're like wow, this is another thing we have to think about with students and how we can help them and what we can do for them.
[MCCOY] And also, you know, I don't know about your graduate school training, but my graduate school train did not teach me these skills, and it's all about skill building. It's all about looking at vulnerability, looking at shame resilience, looking at boundary setting, looking at accountability as skills, right? And this is what is really unique about Brown's work. She makes the clear argument that this is a skill set. That these are teachable things. Yep, so that we can teach these things to our students, to our colleagues to graduate students. You know, maybe administrators, I don't know. But these are teachable skills and that's something that is incredibly unique about her work, and she shows how to actually build that skill set from the ground up in a variety of ways. I mean, this is why she's a grounded theory researcher. It's all about creating certain theories from the ground level, but it's really about arguing that these are a skill set. That setting boundaries is a skill. That making oneself and others accountable for a type of process is a skill set, and with skills you have to practice them.
So, the question becomes for us how do we build this into the curriculum? How do we build this into our department meeting? And really thinking about the skill set as really packageable and transferable to these various arenas.
[MARTIN] One of the things she talks about a lot is the scarcity mindset, and I think it's really prominent in higher ed. There's not enough time, is not enough money. There's not enough people, resources, spaces, whatever. In reading that occurs, the first thing is you have to become aware of this thing, and so I would catch myself saying, “There's not enough time. There's not enough--” Then you say, ”Oh no, that's that scarcity mindset,” and you have a reality check and you say no, I mean, there's plenty of this, you know, whatever it is that I think is there's not enough of. There's actually plenty of it, and I just I need to get out of that kind of that mindset. Then, if you're not careful, produces anxiety and leads to all kinds of other things as you go down. So, that is a skill that if you become aware of it, and you start to build it and you start to figure out ways that you can short circuit that and cut that off and get back into a right way of thinking and doing.
[MCCOY] Unless it's the job market.
[MARTIN] Yeah, well, that's a whole other podcast we can talk about the Ph.D. production and job market, so yeah.
Well, you know, it's been a great conversation and we like to end all these podcasts with asking our guests, what have libraries meant to you in your professional life and also in your in your personal life?
[MCCOY] Oh gosh, so the library for me when I was in undergrad was my best friend. Like I was always a really strange student. I was very much a loner, right? And I've seen how in variety of ways that type of loner syndrome was really detrimental for me, especially in graduate school, and so I would, you know, say, for students that listen to the podcast, it's great that you love the library. Now, find a book club. But books have always been, you know, there for me in a variety of ways. I mean, I grew up in rural Mississippi as a queer child, so it was like they were my friends and folks did not, you know, judge me or bully me. So it was really about, you know, creating this type of relationship with knowledge and just really being curious about things. I think that's really something to consider for the value of things like the library. Like you know how you can nourish your curiosity through these various types of knowledge is that the library has for us.
But yeah, like it's been my best friend for the most part, but also it can be a curse when you're working on your dissertation. Because the thing we tell ourselves, to go back into story, you know the story I'm telling myself, is if I just find that one book, right? I can crack the code to my dissertation. Let me just read this one more source. This one more thing, right? So it's all about thinking about the value of the library as a source of knowledge, but also being mindful of how you're contributing to that to that source knowledge there through various means.
[MARTIN] I think that's one of the biggest differences now, especially academic libraries, really libraries in general. It's not just a place you go and find information and find knowledge. You now can create and actually disseminate that information and knowledge in the library. And it's been a really great thing to watch that happen and see how we can contribute to that so well changes.
So, Shane, it has been great talking to you. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about daring pedagogy. Any last words of wisdom you want to leave us with?
[MCCOY] I think that's it. You know, this then a really great conversation. Talk about Brené Brown and for over an hour. I think you know maybe a last word could be, we need to think about how to make this a class. How to make this a class at the university?
[MARTIN] Thank you very much. It's been great talking to you. Take care.
[MCCOY] Yeah, you too, I'll see you.
[MARTIN] Thank you for listening to Open Stacks, a podcast of the James E. Walker Library.
To learn more about the Walker Library, visit us on the web at library.mtsu.edu, on Facebook at MTSU Library, on Twitter at @MTSULibrary, and on Instagram at @WalkerLibrary.
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[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast of the James E. Walker Library.
I'm your host, Interim Dean of the James E. Walker Library, Jason Martin, and I'm joined in Studio 473 today by a professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media, where she teaches courses in media studies, Health Communication in research methods, Dr. Katie Foss.
Katie, how are you?
[KATIE FOSS] I'm doing well. Thanks for having me.
[MARTIN] Great, it's our pleasure to have you here and let me tell everyone a little bit more about you. So Dr. Foss is the author of Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory, which just came out last week. I believe the 25th of September?
[MARTIN] Yeah. She's also authored Breastfeeding and Media: Exploring Conflicting Discourses that Threaten Public Health and Television and Health Responsibility in an Age of Individualism. She's the editor of the Graduate Student Guidebook: From Orientation to Tenure Track, Beyond Princess Culture: Gender and Children's Marketing, and Demystifying the Big House: Exploring Prison Experience in Media Representations.
She has a B.A. in communication from Gustavus Aldolphus College in M.A. and a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota and has taught at MTSU since 2008.
So I was. I was tired just reading all of that. Those accomplishments, those books you've written and edited. I can't even imagine trying to do all that work and write all that. You're a very accomplished scholar and also a teacher as well.
So let me just ask. So you have a background obviously in mass communication for your Ph.D., how did you get interested in public health in the media?
[FOSS] I've actually always been interested in health and medicine and the history of health and medicine, but I'm going to especially credit a couple different teachers and professors that I had along the way, one being Ms. Meryl Page, who is my AP American history teacher in 10th grade, who had me do a composition paper that had to be historical, and I looked at the revolution of anesthesia and antisepsis and what that did for medicine. That really kind of started my interest in studying this, especially studying this for myself instead of having somebody else telling me or teaching me about it, and then I also took a first term seminar at Gustavus with Dr. John Lambert, who was a biology professor on viruses, and he was a really great professor. He introduced me to a lot of these epidemics that I had never heard of over the years. Epidemics in South America epidemics in different parts of Africa, and just kind of the story of epidemics and just how you can go about investigating epidemic and what are the stories of the people who are experiencing this. So that set a foundation for my interest in this area.
And then I read a historical fiction, which is for young adults called Fever 1793 by Laura Laurie Halse Anderson, which my daughter read too. It's a juvenile fiction. After a couple of years ago and she had told this historical fiction of the yellow fever epidemic and I thought, “Wow, she has so many primary sources incorporated into the story. I want to know more.” How was this story told and so all of that kind of combined fueled this interest.
[MARTIN] You mentioned yellow fever, and you know, when I visited older American cities and I like to go and visit the old oldest graveyards there and cemeteries. You usually see a plaque. It says, you know, here are buried the victims of the yellow fever epidemic. It's how many over hundreds and hundreds of people. You know, it's yeah, a very scary time.
Your latest book is on epidemics in media and collective memory, and that was just published last week, and obviously I assume you started working on it before the world had ever heard of COVID-19. And so, in this book, you looked at 7 epidemics over a 200-year time frame and how shifts in journalism and medicine influence the coverage, preservation and fictionalization of different diseases. And so, how does the media coverage of the current pandemic sort of fit within these seven epidemics you covered and has much changed in how these pandemics are being reported?
[FOSS] It's really interesting to me because as I've been following the coverage of COVID-19, we do see similarities to the ways in which epidemics have been covered in the past. One similarity is kind of the process, or kind of the cycle at which media coverage happens with epidemics, meaning that you start out in an epidemic, with some dismissal in newspaper coverage or the media of the moment, right? And then it starts to rise, and we tend to see a peak in terms of how it's covered or in terms of it being framed as a threat before it hits its peak in terms of cases. And then there tends to be a switch even before cases start to kind of subside or dwindle. We see this switch to the side of light at the end of the tunnel. This optimism that comes even before we see a switch, and that's something I saw repeatedly throughout the different epidemics, even as different media platforms expanded, even as in periods where we had more scientific understanding of what was going, there's a switch in which we start to see this optimism, and I think part of it a little bit is kind of epidemic fatigue, which is what we're seeing now. But we're seeing that same coverage, and we saw it in the summer months. As far as the threat. We seem to think that the threat has started to subside, even though we know it hasn't and didn’t as cases continue to rise.
And I would say the biggest thing that has changed, of course, is the rise of citizen-produced content. So, one reason why we feel like and that there is so much more resistance to what we're being told about public health and what we should do and resistance to mask wearing is because we have a lot more outlets and opportunities for regular people to share their thoughts and to find other people that feel in a similar way. And that's a big change because, you know back in 1918, even though there were small pockets of resistance, you really didn't see any kind of a big tidal wave of people embracing that idea. First of all, because there wasn't a lot of coverage of it, that you didn't have an outlet because newspapers weren't going to cover that. At least not to a mass extent. So, I would say that social media is both a curse and a blessing when it comes to public health.
[MARTIN] Yeah, with the good comes the bad, and you know this one of the things I find interesting. You know, people have talked about the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918-19, there were anti-maskers then, and they said that masks don't work or that for whatever reasons people didn't want to wear, masks. But it is interesting that you bring up that there might well have been just as much resistance then whatever epidemic as there is now to whatever precautions or treatments or whatever. But we just don't know about it. because there's not that kind of record of that resistance.
[FOSS] I would say not nearly at the same level of resistance. Just because people trusted public health authorities a lot more, and you certainly didn't have government directly undermining what people were told from the Surgeon General, for example, or later on, from the CDC.
[MARTIN] And it's fascinating too. Obviously, we live in the most scientific era of any of these, and the progress we've made in understanding how viruses in the human body and diseases and all this sort of stuff work, but yet we seem to be also at the peak of resistance and denial and disbelief in all of these discoveries and advancements.
[FOSS] And part of the reason, I think, is because we have so much media coverage. Ongoing media coverage, and then people also think that they can spread messages that they believe are accurate when they are not. Our pandemic coverage has been so much longer. Our duration is so much longer that, you know, there have been people who say, “Well, this thing is a hoax because the CDC is started changing some of its information.” Well, that's because this has gone on for this long. In the influenza pandemic, though it started in March of 1918, the public wasn't made aware until September, so it didn't feel as long. And again, you didn't have that question, even though they were very wrong. In 1918, they thought that the Spanish flu was caused by a bacteria. They also had some kind of vaccine that they used to “vaccinate” people, and I'm using air quotes right now because who knows what was in that because obviously it wasn't effective if they didn't even know what it was. We've always had this, it's you can't find an epidemic in which they had all of the mystery solved within the time period of an epidemic because things unravel quickly, and it takes time to really have the evidence to have a sound understanding of what's going on.
[MARTIN] You talked about the citizen-produced “journalism,” I'm using air quotes. And some of it, I had to say, that I've discovered has been really good because it's sort of individual, you know, data geeks and people running numbers, and it's been very informative. And then of course, you also have some of the stuff that's just out there. But with the sort of mainstream media coverage, you know. We live in an era of 24/7 coverage, and I for one kind of get sick of hearing about the same because you need content to fill these time slots. You hear the same stories over and over again, and I just kind of get sick of it after a while. And like I just declared the whole thing to be over, you know.
So, what kind of role do you see in this 24/7 news coverage and what kind of role does that play in both informing people but also in, you know, fueling this kind of disbelief. Or you know, [making people feel] just kind of over this whole thing.
[FOSS]Well, I would say the 24/7 news cycle, like you said, not only gives us filler, but it also has made us feel like it goes on that much longer because it's getting the same messages over and over again. But at the same time, we have so many different choices for media outlets, which just raises the importance of media literacy. And I think that that's where a lot of the lack of public trust comes in with both journalism and science is that we're not teaching media literacy at a young enough age and consistent enough to help people discern between what is, you know, a regular person just sharing a meme that's full of misinformation versus something that's actually been vetted and can be backed up with multiple sources. But I will say on the flip side, the wonderful thing about our abundant media sources and the ability to create and have individual people who people will create content is that we are capturing this this pandemic in a way that it's never been captured, particularly through personal experiences. Through stories of people who are writing and documenting memorials created of loved ones lost at a mass scale and in an accessible way that hasn't been available in the past.
[MARTIN] And you know, media literacy. That's a great term and I think a lot of that also goes hand in hand with scientific literacy to understand what is an actual good study, scientific study and what do you actually need to look for and how do you read and understand it?
And you know, a month ago there was this kind of story that went sort of viral that gaiters, those masks that you pull up over your neck, that they weren't effective. They actually helped to spread it and I thought, well, that sounds kind of bizarre. And then I saw on Twitter this woman breakdown what the actual study was and it actually they were just looking at a way to effectively test masks. They weren't actually looking at what spread and what was more effective and this and that? And so it kind of got out there, kind of got on. It got picked up by a newswire news agency, and then so people don't really know. And then of course the other thing is, people don't read the articles, they read the headline, right? And it's in that course is meant to grab people's attention and is often misinforming or misleading, right?
And I've got this hypothesis that in today's world, no matter what your worldview is, I mean you could think that we are an experiment of aliens in some parallel universe, and you could find media coverage that you could consume that your entire waking hour that reinforces that worldview, and so this is another thing, even if you have the media literacy, it's understanding when somebody is just telling you what you want to hear versus someone who's giving you sound information or being able to expand your view beyond just simply what you want to hear.
[FOSS] Right. Absolutely. Going beyond your selective exposure. And I think that you touch on another important point, and that is we not only have to have better media literacy, but we also have to have people who know how to interpret scientific information for the general public and produce it in a source that people will trust. Being able to make that bridge is so important. To have journalists who understand how to bring science the public.
[MARTIN] You talked about two different things. One is the ability to understand the scientific literature. Then it's the ability to explain that in layman's terms to people reading it, and that's a special gift. That's really hard. And I've read some books on, you know, like physics and Einstein's Theory of Relativity and stuff by people who were able to understand it and were able to then explain it in very common terms, and it is something, that you know I wish I had. And so, it's rare, and so it becomes very difficult. Then how do you? How do you get this information out there?
[FOSS] And do it in a digestible way, so they understand that you know a person can die of COVID, but you can list pneumonia, but you're still dying of COVID, and that's still a statistically significant number.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and you know the was recently, just yesterday or two days ago, the student at Appalachian State University who died and what I found interesting was they listed his death as complications from COVID, not from COVID, which seems to be a shift. Is that a bigger shift that you're seeing? People aren't saying they're dying from COVID, but dying from complications of COVID.
[FOSS] I think it just it just comes back to who's reporting the story. But people should understand is it still dying of COVID. Had he not had COVID, he would not have died. I would say that most people who died from influenza in 1918 didn't die necessarily from influenza. It was that bacterial pneumonia that would set in that would cause the death, but it's still traced back to the epidemic, the virus at the center of what we're talking about.
[MARTIN] It also brings up these questions about how to actually report numbers. This kind of amazed me when all this sort of started. We didn't have, as a country, any kind of a system of how reporting numbers and then a standard for how we reported them. And it's led to people, and I think some of them are legitimate questions about, well what's actually important in what we're reporting and how we report it, and what should we actually be even looking for? Is it just numbers of cases? Hospitalizations? So, there's all of these fascinating questions that you think we would have figured out a long time ago, but we still seem to be struggling with that.
[FOSS] Yes. And the standard system for it. Now I will do a shout out to my colleague, Dr. Ken Blake, who does wonderful stuff with data reporting and including on how to interpret the numbers for COVID-19, even locally. And he has something on his website that he regularly updates. He has charts looking at Rutherford County and other counties in Tennessee so I highly recommend everybody check out Dr. Blake's website, and he's been interviewed on this as well. Yeah, and he is wonderful at explaining the data in a way people understand too.
[MARTIN] So, we'll link to his website on the on the show notes.
[MARTIN] Now, your second-most recent book is on media portrayals of breastfeeding and how, in particular, historical and contemporary media often undermine breastfeeding efforts with formula marketing. So, did you find that that companies marketing formula where the biggest deterrent to women breastfeeding?
[FOSS] That combined with a cultural climate that is resistant or even outright confrontational to breastfeeding women. If women don't feel comfortable, for example, breast feeding in public, they're a lot less likely to be willing to try breastfeeding in public. And overall succeed at breastfeeding. If you don't feel supported, it's really hard to succeed at breastfeeding.
[MARTIN] As a male with no children, it seems fascinating that we, as a society, have a discussion about whether you should breastfeed or not when every other mammal on the planet--this is what they do. And so yeah, talking about these companies marketing formula as at least part of this “debate,” I'm using air quotes again… but when we talk about public levels of trust in public health officials and just public health information and thinking about through the past opioid painkiller crisis and how these same pharmaceutical companies marketed these opioids as not being addictive or much better. But they're made from opium. So, I mean how have you seen that affect levels of public trust in public health information this this kind? This sort of conflict between capitalism and making money and marketing a product versus getting out good public health information.
[FOSS] Well, first of all, it comes back to the source. Who is producing the information, but it also heightens or demonstrates the importance of regulation of marketing, especially of health products. So, we had decades in there in which we didn't have direct to consumer advertising of formula and other types of medication, at least in the United States. Meanwhile, there are a lot of formula companies who are marketing and distributing products in developing countries, which was even more horrific of an effect than what happened here of babies that starve to death because they were getting tainted formula or formula mixed with contaminated water. So, there needs to be a checkpoint, I would say, for all products that can be potentially dangerous and we can look back historically too. Before the Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the amount of different chemicals that people were regularly ingesting just in their food because when you don't have some kind of legal checkpoint on companies, they're going to act unscrupulously. You're going to have you know, asbestos in your food or formaldehyde in your butter or chalk in your milk? What people will do for a profit is disgusting. At the same time, needs to be regulated.
[MARTIN] Yeah, it's not. Yeah, it's not that I want to put asbestos in your cornflakes, but to remove it is going to cost me, you know, a couple extra pennies and I need that. Yeah that bottom line, yeah.
[FOSS] Yeah, you might put chalk in the bread if you think it'll make it look whiter. Yeah, like they used to.
[MARTIN] Now of course we don't want anything to do with white bread, so.
[FOSS] Yeah, not now. You want to pick something else.
[MARTIN] Some clay, it may be in the in the wheat bread?
So, all this kind of leads up to, I mean, a lot of talk about COVID-19 vaccines or maybe just more effective treatment for COVID. So how do you see this low level of public trust in health officials and health information affecting, not only vaccine development, but adaptation and use of a vaccine.
[FOSS] Well, I mean, I think that we proceed cautiously, but we should always proceed cautiously with a new vaccine or a new medication. Certainly, cut no corners in the rigor of testing, but at the same time, I do think that we have to trust the FDA without having political pressure to rush out a vaccine. I think that we have to trust the due process of vaccine trials. The stakes are too high to not kind of proceed with a vaccine, and that doesn't mean rush things out.
But if we look at a polio. The polio vaccine gets celebrated as one of the greatest triumphs, of course, of the 20th century, and that makes a lot of sense. But the polio vaccine wasn't rolled out overnight. They were working on it for decades, and then seriously, a shorter amount of time once they figured out the poliovirus is actually three viruses. But even with polio, I mean there's the cutter disaster in which one lab that rushed out too many vaccines without testing their vaccines did have an outbreak of polio because the vaccines were tainted. That doesn't mean you scrap all the vaccines. You think about how many lives have been saved and how many people have been saved from paralytic polio because of the vaccine, even with kind of that blemish on the past. So I mean, it takes time, even after the polio vaccine was approved for trial, it still took more than a decade before we had people across different demographics regularly vaccinate. In fact, they had to do a PR campaign with the March of Dimes just to get that last group vaccinated because young adults don't like to get vaccinated against anything because they don't think there are risks.
So, I mean it's going to take time. We need to make sure that we have the funding and also that people are collaborating, and not just in the U.S. but across cultures, to really make this successful. And then good marketing to make sure that people start getting the vaccine. And I think as people do, once it's proven effective, and we have more and more people who are getting vaccinated. And on the flip side, of course, unfortunately people are going to continue getting sick with COVID and dying. I think that together will start raising the willingness to get vaccinated.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I read an article a few years ago. There's still some people who, pre-polio vaccine, contracted polio and they have to use an iron lung. The article was talking about how you know no one makes iron lungs or makes these parts or works on them, so it's really hard to keep these machines functioning. And they talked to one of the women, I think she would still sleep in the iron lung.
And they asked her what she would you say to people today who are anti-vaxxers. It's just like [she] wished [she] had this vaccine when [she] was born, when [she] was a kid. It would have saved her a whole lifetime of hardship and in pain. I think part of it is that we get so far removed from these, you know, polio outbreaks or your children dying of rubella or measles or all these sort of things that we don't think of them as real dangers anymore. And so sometimes it takes something very scary to get us to realize.
[FOSS] And so the second part of my book title, the Collective Memory part, was a big thing that I wanted to examine. This notion that the reason why we have such a surge in anti-vaxxers, which is not the certainly not the first time we've had anti-vaxxers. It actually traces even before vaccines. But the reason why we have such is that we’ve forgotten, that we've written these experiences out of our collective memory, so that when we think of disease, most people don't know what diphtheria was, or it is because it still exists in some parts of the world. That children are choking to death. And what that would be like to watch your child choke to death. Or, of course, polio, or smallpox, or yellow fever, or all these diseases. I actually started interviewing over the pandemic contagious disease survivors to try to bring some of these stories back, and so I have a section on my blog. It has kind of these experiences and if you ask them about people who are anti-vaxxers. They’re like, “Are you crazy? What we would have given.” Absolutely, they've forgotten the horror of what disease can do, yeah.
[MARTIN] Yeah, in a society that is not very historically literate, and then we lack, at least today, a central kind of media that is able to kind of bring people around a central narrative or idea and then those two things combine. Yeah, it makes it very, very difficult to get people to realize how dangerous these diseases are and how important treatment and vaccines are.
[FOSS] Right, and that they still exist. Except for smallpox, that polio has not been eradicated. Diphtheria hasn't been eradicated. And the list goes on and on.
[MARTIN] Every once in a while I read a story about bubonic plague breaking out in some places. You know, the plague is still around. I mean, that's kinda scary.
[FOSS] And yet most people don't really know what plague was or they misuse the word. And they're like the plague is upon us right now. I'm like, this is not the plague. It’s COVID. It's a coronavirus. You know ,it's not the same thing. Yeah, I know that it still exists.
[MARTIN] As a kid, you do that Ring around the Rosie song which allegedly comes from the plague...
[FOSS] It does not!
[MARTIN] Oh, it does not? OK.
[MARTIN] It's not actually. There's a book in this library that I found that the origin story is much later than they tried to attribute it back. Yeah, that's one of the things that we have. The myth that gets passed on about Ring Around the Rosies.
[MARTIN] Alright, well good to know. I'll stop telling people that.
So, you've also edited books on gender and children's marketing and depictions of prison and media. So how did you become interested in these topics? Because they seem a little off of public health.
[FOSS] So I have a lot of different ways I get interested in things. Usually get some kind of leisure time media consumption. I enjoy editing books because for me, editing is social. It's a much different process. It's really fun to bring different authors together around a common theme. I don't have to be an expert in what I'm editing necessarily, provided it is related to media, but not in the same way that I am for my single authored books.
For the prison one, I was a huge fan of Orange is the New Black. I organized a panel at a conference around it, and at the same time, I went to another panel that looked at prison newspapers and it was such a different story than what I was seeing with Orange is the New Black. So that book actually united scholars across disciplines, bringing in a number of different ethnographers into it, including Dr. Meredith Dye from sociology. She did a chapter. So combining of media scholars like myself with sociologists and anthropologists and people in criminal justice and other areas to really combine what is a media representing and what are the real stories here?
I would say all my books are going around this fascination with how media is distorting and sometimes confronting stereotypes about different topics?
[MARTIN] So for prisons, what did you do? Anything particular that stood out as far as distortions in the media go?
[FOSS] Just the sensationalism in media coverage and of course in fictional representations of prison compared to what those stories really are like. And of course, they run the gamut, and they are a lot more diverse and diverse people whose stories are never told or represented in media. And also, I would say, a lot of the hardship that prisoners and people have been in prison experience that we never see right covered in media. That it's all about punishing crime.
[MARTIN] I read a story by a guy who had spent 20-some years in prison, I think he was wrongfully convicted, but he talked about how he took him years to adjust coming out of prison back into, you know the “real world,” using air quotes again, but you know, it was just things like you never would have though. Like one thing was he talked about was if, say you and I got into a disagreement, and we can have a little bit of a heated argument and debate and then go away and we're fine. And we're still friends. But he said that took him a long time to get used to because in prison it's like it's like 0 or 10, you know, 100. And he was always just worried somebody was gonna get stabbed or beat up. But the other interesting thing was the richness of the food outside of prison. I guess in prison you’re just basically getting barely nutritional content. So, coming out and getting things that have seasoning and spices and it was took him a very long time to adjust to that shift.
[FOSS] I would say after part of the reason I did the children's book was because after they finished the prison book--I fully respect that research and I think it's very important--I was ready to do something that was a little more fun and a little more close to home. So, since I have kids it was fun to do a book that really looked at children's marketing, especially the history of toys and toys and gender. Bringing in some of my own experiences, especially with what my kids have experienced and kind of gender stereotypes in the toys and activities that they wanted to play. So that was a lot more fun. There's a reason I went from editing the prison book to editing the children's marketing.
[MARTIN] So thinking about that kind of history of marketing toys, or to children, have you seen a lot of changes in in that marketing or if things kind of sort of stayed the same?
[FOSS] Huge changes, especially if we looked way back to when people don't usually care what children thought about products and stuff. Let's start with that. But I think we've swung in some ways back to gender typing more kinds of toys, at least in mainstream. But at the same time, there's this kind of this parallel rise of at least superficially, retailers like Target, saying we no longer have a boys or girls aisle, but then you go down the aisles, and it's very clear to who they're marketing. Yeah, but alternative products and websites as well seek to confront of stereotypes. So it's interesting, particularly as we look at the wider acceptance of gender fluidity that is fortunately starting to come more into the mainstream and the importance of recognizing different gender identities.
[MARTIN] Yeah, because we live in a world where there is media that is designed specifically for children and just thinking about the changes in commercials instead of being about for the parents, who are maybe are around and having to watch this, to being exactly marketed to the children. So, the children are like, “Mom, I want this.” or “Dad. I want this.” until the parents give in and buy it for them.
[FOSS] Yep, definitely targeted at children versus the parents, and if you persuade kids that it’s what they want, parents don't even have to unnecessarily understand what it is, as long as they don't on the surface see it as offensive in some way. I mean kids have a huge power in terms of consumption and purchasing products.
[MARTIN] You think about back to kind of one of the things that led to the rise of rock and roll was teenage culture, which I think was sort of an as a developmental thing. These teenagers had buying power and so this music really appeals to them...
[FOSS] The rise of the teen consumer. It makes sense. I mean they have more and more disposable income and they’ll buy dumb things. And they’ll buy dumb things repeatedly. Yeah, and once they embrace some kind of subculture, they become immersed in it and want everything associated with it, so yeah, it makes sense to recognize the teen audience if you're selling a product.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and in some ways, I'm kind of jealous of today's teenagers because if you do immerse yourself in a subculture, you just go on the Internet and there's everything you've ever wanted to know about that subculture, and back in my day, we didn't have any of that. So, we had to, you know, know somebody who had like an older brother or sister, and they had somehow figured this all out and then it got filtered on down, and mostly it was wrong
Now, like going back and revisiting some of that stuff, I'm like, oh I didn't know I didn't know all that existed.
[FOSS] It's funny you say that because I recently joined--super nerd here--a Babysitters Club Facebook site because I loved that series, especially as a tween from about second grade to 6th grade what I loved was reading the Babysitters Club, and they have all this merchandise that everybody is showing off on Facebook and I hadn't bought any of it, but I'm just surprised at just how much there was even though for me, where I was a superfan, but yet only had the books and in the game and that's it.
[MARTIN] I think is maybe where you grew up, city versus suburb or rural area or whatever.
I just checked out the Hardy Boys books from the library.
[FOSS] Oh my gosh! I read them because my dad is a collector. I get it. Yes.
[MARTIN] So you also won the MTSU Ed Kimbrell Excellence in Teaching award. And so, what is your approach to teaching about media and public health and all that?
[FOSS] Well, I love teaching. I've enjoyed it. I can't believe I’ve been here since 2008, so I've been teaching a long time and I've had a lot of students. I love teaching everything from our Gen Ed, which is our Intro to American Media and Social Institutions, love teaching the intro class. I love getting students you know, really excited about all the different ways that media messages impact our lives and really helping them hopefully to think critically about these different things, even if it might be a product. For example, this week we all analyzed an episode of Batman from the 1960s, looking at an episode with Catwoman with Eartha Kitt. And I'm not just looking at representations of gender and race, we're also talking about, they dress up Alfred as a hippie in that episode, even how hippie culture was ridiculed and contrasting that with our documentary we watched on Woodstock.
I just love getting students engaged with material they might not have thought of consuming and also just connecting things of the past into moments now and really looking at today's media messages, kind of with a fresh look. So, that's what the Gen Ed. is about.
And now I also teach Health Communication, including this semester, and it is interesting to teach Health Communication right now and being able to connect moments of the past, but also different health communication theories, different media theories, different campaigns, including mass campaigns to what's going on. You know, it's such a relevant time, almost too much, almost too much for us, so we had to have moments where like this is hard because we're in it.
I would say that my teaching style is that I want to get students engaged. I want to get them talking. I want to hear what they have to say and that's what I've always tried to do
[MARTIN] I love that old Batman show from the 60s. Yeah, and then I look back on it. And I think was intentionally supposed to be that campy? I mean it because they are subverting kind of the counterculture. And really, you know, promoting this kind of status quo, right? You know, there's one episode I remember the basketball team gets done, they go over to the milk machine. They're going to get milk to drink. You know, this kind of wholesome image so, but now you look back on it. You know, were they actually trying to subvert that wholesome image through the camp?
[FOSS] I would say campy, yes, but that campy, no. Because television has historically been a protector of the status quo and was slow to change, especially 1960s television. The way to get around all the social turmoil the 60s was just to set things in kind of ridiculous places or realities in which they didn't have to touch on that. But that's one reason I love Batman. Also, it's such an iconic character and it's easy for students to kind of grab on to that because we still have Batman narratives that continue to come out, even if it didn't look like Adam West.
[MARTIN] As someone who hasn't had cable in a very long time, I end up watching these local retro TV channels, so I got in a kick of watching Dragnet from the 60s. Yeah, so there's a very fascinating look at a at a time that was very almost reactionary in how status quo it was. A very fascinating show, and again still relevant. You know, a lot of episodes on police brutality or police violence and what that looked like back then.
[FOSS} You should watch The Rookie, which police drama that's on now and then you could draw the parallels between Dragnet in the 60s and The Rookie now. It's really interesting. It's definitely formulaic, and it's definitely a little bit cheesy, but it is interesting and what like the 2020 version of a police drama kind of looks like, yeah, so much more diverse. It's great.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and the fascinating about Dragnet. Jack Webb, who started it, who wrote and directed, produced all these episodes. Again, a very conservative, almost reactionary person, but yet extremely progressive on issues of race. He was a big fan of jazz music. So you see this, in these episodes, this very progressive racial narrative in there, but then this very kind of reactionary, you know, defense of police, and the state and all that. Yeah, so nobody ever fits in these neat boxes.
[FOSS] Oh, absolutely right.
[MARTIN] Yes, so you mentioned that you have children. I believe you have two girls. Is that correct?
[FOSS] I do and they are 9 and 11, so 4th grade in 6th grade this year.
[MARTIN] Right and are they doing that remote learning?
[FOSS] They are not. We actually chose to go in person because masks are required in schools an it's going even better than I thought in terms of you know, to my knowledge, not having outbreaks at least so far because they are wearing masks. But I would say that for me that was a tough decision, especially as a public health communication scholar. But at the same time as a parent and also witnessing my children and their need to go to school. So, it's kind of a tough kind of balance there. But like I said, it's going well. They love school so much.
[MARTIN] So with you know these two children, all these parenting responsibilities and with teaching that you do, how do you end up finding time to write and edit as much as you do?
[FOSS] Oh well, I would say priorities, first of all. But I also have I figured out a long time ago that you never save a date, right? Except for, like our writing retreats in the library, which I love, but you can’t save your writing for a big block of time. You got to use what you have, so that has meant that I have definitely taken notes in some weird places. So, like sitting at the karate studio while my kids are doing karate. Or at the Toyota dealership. Or one time at the ice skating rink, I was collecting articles. You use the time that you have, especially because when you have kids, you do a lot of waiting. Waiting and waiting and waiting for them to do stuff. So that’s been part of it. Also, I love to write. I love to tell stories. I love to work with editors, with contributors when I’m editing a book. You know, getting those messages out
And my teaching and my research aren’t separate entities. Research absolutely fuels my teaching, and my teaching fuels my research just as much. My passion for media messages, media consumption and media literacy underscores everything that I do. And a lot of things that I watch with my kids have ended up being papers or projects that I’ve done too.
[MARTIN] That’s such great advice too. Use what time you have. You don’t need, you know, 14 straight hours to write because that’s just unhealthy anyway. If you write a page a day for a year, you’ve got a 365-page book. So, you don’t need that much time each day.
The other thing about Katie. I used to see you. I get to work early. I used to see you in the parking lot because you get to work early too. So she’s an early riser.
[FOSS] Oh, I’m a very early riser! I get up by about 5 or 5:30 every day, and I know that by the end of the day, I’m shot. I go to bed early, so I know that’s not going to be my working time. My best time is in the morning, so I prioritize my stuff, most important stuff, or maybe the hardest stuff to do with writing. I do it first, and then I do all that other stuff that just has to get done but you don’t need the same energy for.
[MARTIN] I structure my day the same way. Get the important things done in the morning, and then I’ll schedule all the meetings and stuff in the afternoon. I know that by the time I go home that my brain is pretty fried.
[FOSS] Save the easy stuff for the end of the day.
[MARTIN] So, one of the things that we’ve been asking everyone on this podcast. What have libraries meant to you, both personally and professionally?
[FOSS] Oh my gosh! The world! I’m glad that you asked me that. For me, university libraries have always been, and I’d say MTSU’s library especially, wonderful spaces that I can engage in my thoughts. I can engage with the material. I can allow myself to be just sucked back in time into these epidemics. It’s such a valuable resource, and I wish students knew how to use the library a little bit more. Inter-library loan, for example. You can get any book! We have a wonderful staff that can help you get it. I have to admit that I’m tired of microfilm, but it’s amazing how you can understand the daily lives of what was going on in 1793, for example, and get an understanding by looking at the newspapers. We have the resources to look at that.
And I even have my favorite spots in the library. Not only is it about resources and really helpful people that can help you find stuff, but it’s about creating an environment in which you can allow yourself to get carried away into whatever it is that you are reading or consuming at the moment. I’ve missed the library. I’m so glad we’re here. This is my first time back in the library since February.
[MARTIN] I was very excited when the library re-opened to the public. I love the start of the semester. The first day of the fall semester was exciting and great, and it was funny because it seemed so busy in here, but it was just a fraction of what we would normally have. So, I’m happy that there are people in here, but I’m a little sad that there’s not more people in here. I’m looking forward when we can get back to having more people.
[FOSS] Yeah, and it infuses you with the energy. There’s even a smell that I like. You walk through, and it’s like this is a place where I know that I can get things done. Nobody is going to bother me. There’s a spirit of the library, something that sounds super cheesy, but until you spend time in a library and really work in a library, that’s something that you really don’t get. I wish students would get more of that, and really reasons to come into the library and see all the amazing things that are here.
[MARTIN] There’s not a challenge in getting them to come into the library, but…
[FOSS] Yeah, there’s a Starbucks here.
[MARTIN] And printing! Fun fact: Three quarters of all printing that happens on campus happens in the library.
[FOSS] I did not know that!
[MARTIN] Yeah, once we get them to come in here, the challenge is to get them to understand all of the things that we have and that some of that is going to be very useful to them. It’s always the challenge of academic libraries, or one of the big challenges.
You’re not the first person to mention the smell of the library. So, I think I’m going to develop a candle and market that.
Thank you very much, it’s been great talking to you. Do you have any last words of wisdom that you want to leave us with?
[FOSS] Coming back to our current situation with the pandemic, I would encourage everyone to learn a little bit more about the past, not just so that we’re not doomed to repeat it, but also to better understand what we’re currently going through. And then also, take a hard look at the media resources that you are consuming and seek to expand, even across different platforms and levels and beyond you own personal comfort to try to understand different perspectives that people have.
[MARTIN] Great. Thank you, Katie.
[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast of the James E. Walker Library.
I am your host, interim dean of the James E. Walker Library Jason Martin, and I'm joined in Studio 473 today by professor of music history at Middle Tennessee State University and director of the university’s Center for Popular Music, one of the premier American music research archives, Dr. Greg Reish.
Greg, how are you?
[GREG REISH] I'm doing great Jason. Thanks so much for having me here.
[MARTIN] Pleasure to have you on. Let me tell everyone a little bit more about you. So, Greg holds an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in musicology and a BA in studio music and jazz from the University of Miami. He's active as a scholar and performer of old-time country, bluegrass, and American folk music with interest in conjunto music from South Texas and son jarocho from Veracruz. He's released a duo album with fiddler Matt Brown called Speed of the Plow, and the title track was the music intro to this episode. He's produced various albums for Spring Fed Records, written and edited books, book chapters and articles on a wide range of musical topics. A former Fulbright scholar to Italy, he is also one of the world's leading experts on Italian Avant Garde music of the 20th century. A singer and multi-instrumentalist, Greg plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, ukulele, and harmonica, as well as the baja sexto and requinto jarocho. He is also the weekly host of Lost Sounds on Roots Radio WMOT, which can be heard streaming on the Internet and is a show that I highly recommend.
And now first Greg, I have to ask you about the University of Miami. Now as many people around here know, I am a “Florida man” through and through. So, are you as well?
[REISH] No, I'm from Atlanta. I grew up, born and raised in Atlanta, but I went to the University of Miami because I was an electric guitarist more than a classical guitarist. And back in those days in the 1980s, if you wanted to be an electric guitar major, that pretty much meant that you needed to go somewhere and study in a jazz program, and University of Miami had at the time--and still has today--I think one of the premier jazz programs in the country, so that's what drew me down there.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and it makes sense that Miami would have a great jazz program. I think of you know all that Jazz and Cuban jazz and cubop.
[REISH] Yeah, I've spent a lot of weekends playing salsa and other kinds of Cuban or Latino music in clubs for a little pocket money while I was down there, but studying jazz and trying to build up my versatility as a player. The studio music part of that degree was designed to get your music reading skills really sharp and kind of, you know, develop the kind of player that can walk into a studio session and provide whatever it is that the producer wants and do so efficiently, which is what good session players can deliver?
[MARTIN] Yeah, I guess there's a session player you could be asked one day to play on country and another day to play on R&B and so yeah, you have to be very versatile.
[REISH] Yeah, and a lot of session players don't even quite know what to expect when they go into a session. Alot of the people that I know I've got to know over the years, I mean, they'll show up at a recording session with a whole bunch of different instruments, not knowing exactly [what to expect]. Even if the producer has a pretty clear idea of what she or he wants going in, sometimes you know there are changes of direction during the session, and like [they’ll say] "That's not working. Hey, can you instead switch over to the mandolin and play a little bit of this kind of sound or that kind of sound.” The best studio players are really, really versatile and can really switch gears very quickly.
[MARTIN] As someone who has difficulty playing the radio, this is always so impressive to me. I actually bought a ukulele and I was going to learn how to play it. I almost got a C chord down and then was sort of like...
[REISH] That is only one finger on a ukulele, the C chord. That's a good place to start.
[MARTIN] So I mean, just yeah, absolutely amazing to me and what musicians like yourself and musicologists can do.
[REISH] I should point out for the to be a completely forthright about everything. I never had much of a career as a studio musician. Don't want the listeners to get the wrong impression. So that was part of my training. I've done a little bit of that kind of work, but I never really busted into that into that vocation and never made my living that way. As my career unfolded, I went and various other directions, including academia, of course.
[MARTIN] So what made you make that choice to not go that route of the studio musician and more into the academic side?
[REISH] So, when I finished my degree from University of Miami, which was 1988, I actually came to Nashville. My current position here at MTSU is not my first stint in Middle Tennessee and I came to Nashville. I was writing songs in those days and performing as well. Kind of a music that would be called Americana today. The word was not as common back then, and I floundered around a little bit in Nashville. I wasn't. I think I was pretty well trained as a musician, but I was not really ready and knowledgeable about how to be a successful entrepreneur. How to promote myself, how to network, how to get my foot in the door in various ways. I was young and idealistic, and I thought things were just going to unfold magically, and lo and behold, they didn't. But I spent two years in Nashville. I was playing some and trying to promote my own songs and doing a little bit of studio work.
I was working in those days at Tower Records. As my day job and they made me the classical buyer because I had a degree in music, and I knew that Mozart wrote 41 symphonies and so I was the guy to handle the classical room, and to build up my knowledge for that job, I started reading more and more music history. Of course, I'd taken my undergraduate music history courses as part of my degree.
But it was those years in Nashville that I really started to get interested in 20th century music. We were still in the 20th century at that point, and I was very interested in some of the experimental music and Avant Garde music, both in the United States and in Europe. And I was reading more about it and listening to a lot of it because I was getting a lot of promotional CDs and so on through my work. And after two years, I just decided that my career wasn't really progressing in the ways that I had hoped in Nashville, and I started to think about going back and getting graduate degrees, which is what I did.
[MARTIN] Yeah, if it was up to the music, a lot of people be successful, but it's the music business part of it. I think there's a lot of...
[REISH] Yeah, and like I said, I was young and idealistic and just didn't realize how challenging it was going to be or what it would take to really, you know, push myself into that world successfully, but I have no complaints. It all worked out.
[MARTIN] Yeah, great, we're happy to have you here at MTSU. Speaking of Tower Records, in college, I worked at Blockbuster Music, and which nobody has any idea what Blockbuster Music is, they've been gone for a long time, but that was a lot of fun.
So, tell us about the Center for Popular Music.
[REISH] So, the center is a research archive. We do a lot of different things, but our primary function is to archive and provide access to rare materials, so we're like a special collections type of library. And archives and libraries have some overlap in their function, but they're also different in some important ways, the main one being that we have a lot of materials that are rare, or in some cases, unique. These are manuscripts and photographs. We have many, many sound recordings. Of course, we have music books. We have posters and programs and that sort of thing, and our scope is very broad in what we cover in our collecting mission.
In our research mission, we cover everything in American vernacular music, so all kinds of folk genres and commercial genres, just about everything except classical music, and we even have some things related to that, because sometimes the boundaries between classical and popular get a little bit blurry.
So, we have quarter of a million sound recordings in every format, going back to Edison-type cylinders. We have, you know, over 100,000 pieces of individual pieces of sheet music and many tens of thousands of music books, sacred and secular. We have things going as far back as the 18th century and right up to the present, and touching upon every genre that that you can think of: Country, rock, jazz, gospel, blues and on and on and on down the list. We have things from major artists that are household names and we have music made by community folks that are true amateur musicians.
We provide documentation of all kinds of music-making in the United States, and also sometimes spilling over into other countries that are close by or are places where American music has taken hold in other parts of the globe. We also embrace some of that in our collecting mission, and so the center is there primarily for students and faculty here at the university and also for researchers who come from far and wide. Not right now in the middle of the pandemic, of course, but in conventional times we have researchers coming from all over the U.S. We get international visitors.
In fact, my first exposure or visit to the center came years before I had any inkling that I was going to be working here. I was up in Chicago at a university there as a regular faculty member, and during the summer, I took a research trip for a project that I was working on. I visited primarily two archives on that summer research trip, which was back in 2010, if I remember correctly. One was the Library of Congress and the other was the Center for Popular Music. So, I use that little story to illustrate just something of the breadth and depth and importance in quality of the collection here.
So, I came here in 2014 an it's been a wonderful experience to be here. I should also mention that beyond the archival work and the support for researchers and students and teachers, we also do a lot of programming at the center. We have speakers come in to do panels, film screenings with music-related films and we might have, you know, the film makers or others involved present for a Q&A session. We do live musical events, concerts and we've had one festival. We do academic conferences, all those kinds of events and other kinds of outreach as well.
Probably most notable in that category is our record label, Spring Fed Records, which is a documentary record label that is devoted to the folk music or the grassroots music of the American South. So, we have a lot of music from this immediate area on our label, but we are also now stretching down into Texas and looking at other possibilities of broadening our scope, both geographically and stylistically. It's a Grammy-winning label. It has not always been associated with the center; it came to us in 2014. Actually, the very same month that I started my job. It used to operate out of the Art Center of Cannon County out east of us, but they were going to shut down the label, and the center and people at MTSU have had a history of being involved in some of their projects. So, it was a natural fit for us to take it over in 2014, and we've been steadily adding to the catalog since then with some pretty exciting releases.
[MARTIN] And now for this record label you're talking about. Is this sort of archival music that maybe you're just going to remastering and putting on the label? Or you're recording new music as well.
[REISH] It's actually both. The label when we first got it was almost entirely archival recordings. Older recordings, field recordings, things like that. Some of them might have been available in the past, some of them, perhaps not, but they weren't available at the time and the label was issuing or reissuing them, and we've continued to do quite a bit of that kind of work. At the same time, we have undertaken some new projects that are new recordings sometimes made in the field, sometimes made in a studio. But in either case, new recordings of traditional music. So, we're expanding in that sense as well.
[MARTIN] Do you record them here at MTSU using like the Media and Entertainment studios?
[REISH] Yeah. Actually, the only one that we've done that for is a recent project that I'm especially proud of. It's an album called Tennessee Breakdown that was released officially early 2020. If I remember correctly, the release date was in late January, right around that time. We recorded it in 2019, but we did it here in the Department of Recording Industry studio over in the College of Media and Entertainment, and I should point out that the center is part of the College of Media and Entertainment, so we're in that same building, and that particular project, which is one that focuses on the music of two young Middle Tennessee Cumberland region fiddlers that I got to know through my own involvement with old time music in the region.
That is a project that was partially funded by the Tennessee Arts Commission. We received a grant from them to do this project, and part of the way that grant and the project were conceived was to do it in the studio here at MTSU, working with a student engineer, a young man named Gleb Yara Voi who was at the time, an MFA student in the Department of Recording Industry. He’s since graduated, but he did the engineering and the mixing and mastering, and he did a fantastic job. We recorded over 30 tracks in two days with a real kind of stripped-down old-time string band. Basically, just fiddle, guitar, and banjo on most of the record. And I'm just thrilled with the way it came out.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I’ll have to check that out. We'll put a link to that in the in the show notes.
[REISH] That’d be great.
[MARTIN] And yeah, and I have to say, you talked about programming. A few years ago. I went to a presentation in the Center for Popular Music, and I believe he teaches at Austin Peay, I could be wrong. He's from Japan. He got interested in blues music through The Rolling Stones, and had just written a book I think on Sonny Boy Williamson and he wrote like the only or the maybe the first book on and I'm blanking on this like big Time Blues artist name.
[REISH] Sonny Boy Williamson?
[MARTIN] Right, I think that was the current book, but I think he had written it for like his dissertation.
[REISH] I'm sorry I can't remember who that was. I do I remember the program you're talking about, but I don't remember the previous book. Yeah, those are the kinds of programs that we like to have. Bringing in authors who've written important books and let them talk about the books and answer questions and so on.
[MARTIN] And it was such a fascinating program to me, because he also he said that he teaches sort of African American music, like from gospel to R&B, kind of this modern 50s to current. And he's from Japan, living in Middle Tennessee. And it was just a great story overall, you know, his journey to get here and teaching and doing what he does.
[REISH] It is interesting sometimes how people who get involved in the scholarship on various kinds of vernacular music come from outside of those traditions, sometimes far outside of those traditions. I was just talking about this with my students in class just the other day. This idea we were talking about was the folk revival as a backdrop to Bob Dylan's work, and you know, I was discussing with them that the real motivation or the real impetus of the folk revival was people who weren't born to communities that played and produced these kinds of music, but had come to it by choice. They'd been exposed to it oftentimes in college or in a similar kind of environment and something about it resonated, and people were drawn to it. And that's certainly the case with scholars.
There are scholars who work on music that is, in a since, their birthright. I mean, music that they were born into, you know with their families or their communities or their churches, or what have you. They were exposed to it just by their home environment. But there are probably a greater number of scholars working in traditional music that actually come to it as outsiders of one sort or another, and that is something that can be very challenging. It can be advantageous in some ways to have this outsider's perspective, but there's always some level of division or dichotomy between the insider and outsider. This is a deep philosophical discussion that ethnomusicologists and anthropologists and others doing that kind of ethnographic field work often grapple with and learn about the theories behind it. But there's not, in my mind at least, there's not a clear advantage to one or the other. They both are fraught with potential pitfalls, but both approaches come with different kinds of potential advantages. So yeah, it's very interesting when we've had other international scholars come here.
Speaking of Japan, we had another young woman who was here at MTSU for a full semester. She was on a Fulbright, and she was doing a lot of her work on country music, but country music in Japan. But she was sort of tracing the roots in various ways here and doing work in other places around the Nashville area. But a lot of her archival work was at the center.
We've had another student, a PhD student, came from Norway, who was also working on country music, and he came here for a couple of weeks several years ago.
We've had, you know, people from the UK and they're all working on American Music, but in a sense that's no more strange than all that time that I was working on Italian music. And I'm not Italian, but I learned the language and I spent a year in Italy doing research and meeting people and just kind of, you know, ingratiating myself into that scene. I was working on contemporary music, so a lot of the people who were involved with the music that I was writing about were still alive. So, and it was an active scene, so I was going to concerts, and I was meeting with people and interviewing them and so on, and sometimes I got suspicious looks. Like who is this American and what are you really trying to do? And so, I had to convince people that my motives were pure in that sense. But that usually isn't that hard to do. It certainly wasn't for me in that context, but in other situations it might be much more challenging.
And now I'm doing some work in in Mexico and running into, you know, some of the same challenges, although I have to say that the community of jarocho musicians that I have started to get to know in in the Mexican state of Veracruz, which is along the Gulf Coast. They have been extremely welcoming. There's still a lot that I don't know, and a lot I don't understand. And I'm just talking in terms of the broader culture, but they've been very open and very welcoming and very excited. You know, I'm not the first American to take an interest in this music, not by a long shot, but they're still very excited to have me there.
[MARTIN] Yeah, it makes me think of A.P. Carter. He was going around recording. I think a lot of African American musicians, but a lot of what we would call you know Americana folk. Kinda early blues.
[REISH] Yeah, well A.P. wasn't recording. He was song collecting. A.P. Carter from The Carter Family. One of the early really influential country music acts from the 1920s and 30s and AP, his motivations, interestingly, were more commercial because he was looking for material that he could arrange and work up for The Carter Family to record and perform, and he had an agreement with Ralph Peer who was their publisher and kind of their record label guy that if A.P. could find material that had not been copyrighted by anyone, and all these folk songs and older songs generally had not been, that AP would work up distinctive arrangements. Distinctive versions of them, and then Peer would slap a copyright on it, and they would split the royalties.
So, to this day, there's lots and lots of songs that are actually old traditional songs and historians have traced early versions of them, but they have A.P. Carter's name on them as songwriter, as composer. But yeah, he went around. They lived in southwestern Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains, and he went around mostly in that region. You know, 50- or 100-mile radius of home. He was accompanied by an African American musician named Leslie Riddle, and Riddle had a really, really good musical ear and could remember tunes and things as they weren't musically literate. They weren't writing these tunes down. So, they could write the words down, but they had to remember the tunes and Leslie Riddle was really good at that. And that's one reason why A.P. brought him along because he helped with that task, but also because Riddle was an entry into the African American communities.
One of the interesting ironies of that story is that, as I said, A.P. Carter's motivation was purely commercial, and yet he ended up in a sense, preserving a very large body of folk music or older American popular song that might have been lost otherwise because once he started to sing them, they were so popular that that you know lots of fans heard them, and you know, the next generation of country artists. They all learn these Carter family songs that they heard on the radio. A song like Will the Circle be Unbroken just to take one example, which the Carters recorded as Can the Circle be Unbroken. A little bit different, but that song, which is definitely a much older folk song, but nobody had claimed it, and nobody even thought to claim it. But the commercial forces of the publishing and recording industry were what inspired A.P. to work up his own version, and then they claimed it. And still today, if you want to record, Will the Circle be Unbroken, you gotta pay Peer International Publishing their royalty fee on that.
[MARTIN] Yeah, so on one hand it's great that all of this music was preserved, that might well have been lost to history. On the other hand, you have people making money off of it who kind of weren't really from that community or from that tradition. And the people who originally did that, you know they're kind of left out in the cold.
[REISH] Yeah, that's an old story. A story that has happened again and again and again in American culture. And of course, it's not unique to America. It’s happened all over the world. But that's one of the things that when you do come into a community as a as a scholar and as a researcher, and you don't have any commercial financial economic incentives behind your work... That's one of the things that, in a diplomatic way, you have to convince the community of. That I'm here for other purposes. Of course, I mean, I don't want to make academics sound completely innocent in in the history of documentation of folk music, because especially in earlier decades, there have been plenty of cases where academics perhaps didn't make so much money off of it, but exploited the music in other ways too for other purposes, so that's another long and complex and sometimes distasteful part of the history of this kind of work. But it doesn't change for me the fact that the work itself is vitally important.
[MARTIN] Absolutely. Have you seen this documentary on Netflix? I think it's called The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
[REISH] I have not.
[MARTIN] So it's all about that song. You know, the aweemawep aweemawep aweemawep.
[REISH] Which became a hit for Pete Seeger.
[MARTIN] Right, and but apparently Pete Seeger was told that this was some kind of old African folk song that wasn't copyrighted, but in fact it had been recorded in copyrighted in the 1930s by a very popular, and I [can't think of his name], guy who recorded it was a really big artist in South Africa. And none of this made it across the Atlantic, and so it's. It's the story about trying to sort of make this right, because then it became a big hit for The Lion King, and trying to make it right for his family and his daughters and granddaughters. And he might have made it worse. You know, it's all this, but it's a great. It's a great documentary.
[REISH] There are so many stories that follow a similar trajectory around an artist or a song or a body of work, or sometimes even an entire culture. And you know, I applaud people who now are trying to shed light on these situations and trying to correct them as much as can be corrected long after the fact. But when you have that intersection of folk culture and commercial industry, you know, sometimes unsavory things happen. Sometimes not even intentionally. It sounds like in the case of Pete Seeger, who was not the kind of artist who would have you know, willfully exploited anybody's work, but it sounds like, nonetheless, that's kind of what happened.
[MARTIN] Yeah, unfortunately so. How big is the archive collection at the center?
[REISH] Well, there are a lot of different ways to measure it, but it's big. It's over a million individual items. That's down to the level of individual letters in a manuscript collection from an artist or a music business person, or so on.
But it's all housed right here in the in the Bragg building in the College of Media and Entertainment. Now if people are walking through the building and and looking through our glass door and our front glass window, they might not get a sense of just how large it is because what you see there is the reading room.
None of our materials circulate, that's another way that that archives are often different from traditional libraries. You can't check anything out of the Center for Popular Music. If you want to look at it or listen to it, then you need to come in and sit in our reading room. And that's the way I mean. If you go to the Library of Congress, if you go to research archives. Just about anywhere. That's how it works, although a lot of people are not familiar with that setup, it's actually quite normal for the kind of collection that we are. So, when you look through those front windows, all you see is the reading room. We have a small collection, not super small, but about 10,000 books that are a reference collection that you can see and some tables and chairs and computer stations.
But the real archival collection is back behind the desk. You know, you can't see it and normally we don't have patrons browsing it either. So, you if you come in and have something specific you want to access, or if you come in and just have a topic or an area of interest, you can work with our staff to identify the materials that we have, and the staff will retrieve them for you and bring them out to the reading room. But it's actually a huge room. 3,300 square feet, two stories tall, halfway underground.
Of course, given the age and rarity and value of some of the materials we keep an eye on the climate conditions in the room pretty carefully. We monitor the humidity levels and the temperature in particular, and we have some other kind of disaster-resistant measures in place to make sure that those things are preserved for generations to come.
I mean, in general, the archivists' goal is to preserve something so that it will still be there in 500 years. Now some of our materials, just by the nature of what they are, won't be there in 500 years. Audio tape, for example. It is disintegrating and we can slow down that process, but we can't stop it. That's just kind of the way it is, but a book or a vinyl LP? I mean, I hope that it will be there long after we're all gone, and it will be there for subsequent generations of students and researchers.
[MARTIN] Yeah, when I first started here, I got a tour of the archives, and if you think Greg is exaggerating, he is not. It is a giant room with, I mean, everything. I think I saw, like Run-DMC CDs and then you see these old acetates and vinyl and all kinds of amazing things there. To me, the coolest thing that I saw on that tour was some books of Sacred Heart music, which for those listening was made for church singers who couldn't read music. These little notations, though, would tell them, sort of how to sing.
[REISH] It's a special type of notation. Conventional music notation, uses little note heads that are just ovals that are all the same shape. I mean, some are empty and some are filled in, but they're all ovals. Sacred Heart music or shape note music uses different shapes that correspond to the notes of the scale. So, kind of like Do-Ray-Me-Fa-So-La-T-Do. Each one has a different shape. I'm over-simplifying the system a little bit but that's the basic idea, and it was kind of a shortcut way to teach people to read music very quickly so they could sing in church and this was it. It was a practice actually started in New England back in colonial times. The roots of it and really got established in the very early 19th century, just as the musical tradition was spreading southward and westward. The name Sacred Heart comes from one of the most important and widely used collections of music that is notated in this way. It's called the Sacred Heart, but there are lots of others. There's the Kentucky Harmony and there's all these other books. And we have a very significant collection. One of the one of the most important collections of Sacred Heart or shape note music in the country. Books going back to the late 18th century that are notated in this way So yeah, it's a very cool collection.
We have lots of other religious music books, Southern Gospel books, of course, and various other traditions. Since we're not exclusively focused on music of the South. We have a lot of it, of course, being where we are, but we do have music from all over the country. So, I mean, we have sacred music, books printed in German in Pennsylvania, for example. And you know all kinds of really, really interesting things and that's one particular category of our holdings that does get a fair amount of use. I mean, scholars do want to have access commonly to some of that material.
[MARTIN] What's like what are some of the like, sort of coolest rarest things that you have in the collection?
[REISH] Well, one thing that is probably one of the most widely known things that is uniquely ours is the oldest known picture of Muddy Waters that was taken in 1941 when he was still living in the Mississippi Delta. So, this is before he moved up Chicago and got involved with Chess Records and electric Blues and you know, turned into a big, big star and an influential figure. He was a Blues man back in the early 40s in that Mississippi Delta tradition. And folklorist Alan Lomax, who's quite famous and John Work III, who is an African American folklorist who worked out of Fisk University here up the road in Nashville, they came on a Library of Congress-funded trip to do some documentation work and song collecting and so on in the Delta an and they found Muddy Waters. McKinley Morganfield was his real name and they made the first recordings of him, which are now widely available, and they've been reissued. They’re sometimes called the plantation recordings, because they were made at his home on Stovall Plantation, but they also took a picture of him sitting on his porch with his fiddle player, who he played with quite often and who's on a few of their recordings as well. Guy named Son Sims, and that has turned out to be a super famous picture and we have the original print. The negative has actually been lost, but we have the original print of that picture and own the rights to it as well. The university owns the rights to it so we get calls or emails pretty regularly, maybe once a month on average where somebody is doing a book or a website or an exhibition or a documentary film having to do with blues or music in Mississippi or whatever it may be and they want to use that picture, and we license it out for a modest fee. Typically, if it's a nonprofit or educational institution, we’ll sometimes waive that fee. We're not in it to make money, but will take a little bit of revenue if we can get it. So, that's one item that is, you know, particularly cool, particularly rare.
We have a small but very rare and valuable collection of Confederate print sheet music. So actually, during the war, during the time of the Confederacy, of course there wasn't as much sheet music being printed during that period because of scarce resources and economic pressures and all kinds of other things. But there were some Southern Confederate publishing houses that were publishing their own music. They tended to be particularly cheaply printed, like the quality of the paper and so on is less than you would have normally found during that during the 19th century, again because of, you know, economic challenges and so on, and there just wasn't much of it produced and not much of it preserved. So, we have a collection of Confederate sheet music that is quite remarkable. Just a couple of examples.
[MARTIN] Yeah, sounds amazing. That's cool stuff. I know about a year or so ago, I was reading an article, an online publication, a very good one, called The Better Southerner, and there was an article on Carl Perkins and I'll post a link to this in the show notes, but I’m reading this and then all of a sudden, I see the name Martin Fisher from Center for Popular Music. And so, you all had helped. So, this guy had discovered these acetates that Carl Perkins had recorded about two years before the world had heard of Elvis Presley. So very old stuff. And so y'all helped make that transfer from acetate to digital so the world could hear some of that. So, what are the kinds of things that you do for research? Obviously, they want to come look at things in the archive, but how much of it is that kind of stuff? As far as like transferring music files for folks?
[REISH] Well, we do a lot of digitization, both of printed materials or handwritten materials. In other words, paper things that are going to be scanned. And sometimes we engage in projects, and sometimes those are grant funded projects where we say we've got this particular manuscript collection or photograph collection or music book collection, and we want to scan it and we'll go out and seek some grant funds to help that particular project that has a pretty clear scope.
Other times, we will get research requests. Somebody who needs to see a particular photograph or a particular piece of sheet music, and it's not available online anywhere. We have an actual copy of it, and so we can scan it for them. Of course, we're always very, very careful about copyright issues. We don't just scan everything we have or anything we have and stick it on the internet. Or you know, put it out. But if it's something is in the public domain, no problem. If it is something that's still under, you know, licensing restriction, then we need to make sure that the intended use falls within the Fair Use clause of the U.S. Copyright law.
As far as sound recordings, I mentioned earlier that we have approximately a quarter of a million, probably closer to 300,000 actually. And we do digitize those mostly for two reasons. Number one is, in some cases, depending on the medium, we're doing it strictly for preservation. So, it doesn't necessarily mean the older it is, the more in danger it is. It really depends on the physical format. I mentioned that magnetic tape is particularly volatile and particularly fragile and prone to degradation, so that might be something that we would prioritize for preservation purposes. And then other times, we're doing digitizing for research requests and also for Spring Fed Records projects, of course. So, when we do releases that are based on archival material, then obviously that needs to be digitized in a very highly professional manner. An optimal manner. And then if there's any sort of mastering and clean up that work that needs to be done.
You mentioned Martin Fisher, he's our manager of our sound recording collection, so he's our audio preservation specialist. And man, he knows his stuff. He does some incredible work with all kinds of formats. And some, I mean, we bring in stuff from donors or other places that just, I mean, it looks like somebody pulled it out the garbage. I mean, it’s just stuff that looks horrible, and it's moldy or it's falling apart. Or it's got all kinds of problems, and Martin is just kind of a whiz at preserving that stuff and getting the best possible digital transfer out of it.
[MARTIN] I believe the author of the article refers to him as the audio wizard.
[REISH] Yeah, yeah, that's about right. Those Carl Perkins recordings turned out to be the earliest recordings Carl Perkins ever made out in West Tennessee. Before he was known, before he was involved with Sam Phillips and Sun Records. And one of the things is really interesting about those recordings is that they're not rockabilly. We think of Carl Perkins primarily as a rockabilly artist, but it's really just honky tonk country. Yeah, I mean, he's covering well-known honky tonk songs in a straight up early 1950s country style. Late 1940s, early 50s style, and doing a great job of it. I mean, he doesn't sound like the same Carl Perkins. He sounds not quite like Hank Williams, but it's sort of in that vein of, you know, the honky tonk stars of that period.
[MARTIN] You start to talk about that early rockabilly rock and roll, and then it always brings up the conversation, I guess, looping back to what we talked about earlier. Sort of cultural appropriation. You talk about. Like you know, guys like Elvis Presley, who is rock and roll. It brings in, you know country. But R&B and gospel and blues, and you know, here you have a guy like Elvis and who grew up dirt poor and grew up around a lot of African Americans in Mississippi. He's still a white guy who was appropriating a lot of black-sounding or black music into his into his repertoire.
And it's amazing to me. I think that how much, especially I think of in the South of all these influences of gospel and blues... I mean blues was the “Devil’s music.” But it's all coming together to form this new kind of music.
[REISH] Well, blues and gospel. I usually think of as two sides of the same coin...
[MARTIN] Saturday night and Sunday morning.
[REISH] That's right. It's a Saturday night/Sunday morning syndrome. And you know, there's a long history of those musical genres sharing ideas, but it's always been uncomfortable. It's always been an uncomfortable symbiotic relationship, and you're absolutely right about somebody like Elvis. And in fact, I had this conversation with my students recently when we did a little unit on Elvis and early rock and roll and we compared. Most of Elvis' early records are covers and we compared those to the originals, which are usually by African American artists. Not always, but typically. And that opened up the discussion of is this appropriation. Elvis obviously was much more successful. You know, judged not artistic merits, but you know strictly commercial merits. He was much more successful than any of the black artists that he was influenced by and whose music he was covering.
We talked about whether or not that is something in and of itself to be critical of, and there's no right answer to this. I mean, it's really a matter of subjectivity oftentimes, but to really form a solid opinion about something like this, I think that one needs to look carefully at the history. How exactly was this done? What was Elvis is exposure to, or involvement with African Americans and African American music? In Elvis's case, that still leaves you kind of wondering because things aren't crystal clear. I mean Elvis’ view on race and his attitude towards some of the black musicians that he hung around with, you know, is not surprising. It's a mixed bag. It really is. I mean, there's no question that he loved the music. There's no question about that. Did he respect the people who made the music as much as he respected the music itself? That's an open question, and not surprisingly, even my students came down on different sides of this of this debate, and that's, you know in a sense, the way I want it to be. The way I think it should be because usually there aren't simple answers to these kinds of complicated questions, and that's OK, but we still need to ask them because it gets us really thinking and exploring and reflecting in ways that are, I think, healthy.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and I am an unabashed Elvis fan.
[REISH] As am I.
[MARTIN] Yes, and I sometimes think he gets blamed for sort of a system of racism. You know, Big Mama Thornton was never going to be commercially successful singing Hound Dog because of the time in place in era, so she was just not going to get on Ed Sullivan. Whereas Elvis had entry into that because he was a good-looking white guy. Yeah, I mean so he kind of takes the blame for that. And it's like, well, he was. He didn't create this this system, he was, you know, advantaged by it, right? But he, you know he wasn't the person kind of keeping all these musicians down.
[REISH] Yeah, so he was the beneficiary of it, and one could be critical of the system without necessarily being critical of Elvis himself. But it becomes a question then of you know how did he respond to that privilege? That privileged position? What did he do with that? And again, you know, it's complicated as they say, it is definitely complicated, but Elvis is sort of a touch point figure because of his notoriety and his success and his quick elevation to iconic status and the very fact that rock and roll itself was this tension filled convergence of black and white traditions.
I do push back against the common misunderstanding that rock and roll was just white people singing black music. That's certainly true to an extent, but there's more to it than that. Well, for starters, there were Black rock and roll artists. So, it was Ike Turner. There was Fats Domino. There was Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Of course, Chuck Berry was, you know, a huge influence on Elvis and The Beatles later on all sorts of people. So, we can't just say rock and roll. Were white people singing black music when there were black people making rock and roll as well?
That's one thing, but the other thing is that rock and roll, and you alluded to this earlier, is an amalgamation of different styles of fusion of different things, and black musical genres were probably the most prominent, but you know we call it rockabilly because it was hillbilly music, which was a common name for country music. Honky tonk, country music at the time. Elvis' very first 45 RPM single that he recorded and released for Sam Phillips in 1954 was a cover of That's Alright Mama, which was his version of a rhythm and blues song by an African American artist, Arthur Crudup. But the flip side of that was Elvis' cover of Blue Moon of Kentucky, which was a bluegrass waltz in its original version by Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, who Elvis listened to every Saturday night on the Opry. So, I mean that in a nutshell, is a really good illustration of how rock and roll brought these different streams together,
[MARTIN] I think also there's a common misconception that in the South, because of segregation, black and white never mixed, but it's like every day you were living and working together and you heard stories of Elvis going down to the Black church and listening to the Gospel singer, standing outside.
[REISH] To his credit, he took an active interest. He wasn't just stuff that was kind of in the air around him. He really took an active interest in in black music and black culture and really sought it out at the source, so to speak. Elvis was a musical sponge after he moved to Memphis and he was a teenager. Especially whites of a lower socioeconomic class did typically have a lot of interaction with and exposure to African Americans who are of the same socioeconomic class oftentimes, and that was the case with Elvis, and he just soaked it all up, and apparently, he didn't worry too much about “oh, this is white music, this is black music.” “I should be singing this. I shouldn't be singing that.” He just he just kind of put it all together, and it came out as Elvis. But there's also no question that that he was, if you want to use the word appropriating, he was certainly, adapting a lot of black music. Especially early on when he was doing all those covers of R&B songs.
[MARTIN] Yeah, definitely a complicated figure. We do a whole series just on Elvis. My favorite is late Elvis, who was who was very seriously, you know, propositioning the president to become an undercover DEA agent when he was popping like 600 pills a day.
But you mention Bill Monroe and bluegrass and up until a few years ago, I thought of bluegrass as a very old tradition. Then I learned it was invented in the 1930s...
[REISH] 40s, actually.
[MARTIN] Really? 40s.
[REISH] That's really when bluegrass coalesced. I mean something that we can recognize bluegrass.
[REISH] Yeah, that that's you know, a lot of people understandably make the mistake of thinking that anything with a fiddle and a banjo is bluegrass, and while the definitions of bluegrass are always kind of a moving target, there's a lot of other kinds of music, and some of those are much older, so the roots of bluegrass go--you know, string band music made by both black and white musicians--goes way back into the 19th century. And 19th century minstrel shows are another place where the fiddle and banjo, representing the kind of European and African traditions respectively, where at that came together. Minstrel shows, of course, come with a lot of, you know, very distasteful baggage. But there's no denying their importance and their influence in the development of American Music, even though they were racist, you know, through and through. You know, one thing that brought the banjo to the attention of white audiences. Really, for the very first time, was primarily through minstrel shows.
So, there's this whole long and very complicated tradition of string band music and then Bill Monroe, who was from Western Kentucky, who was a great singer, songwriter and mandolin player. He wanted to play the fiddle, but they had a fiddle player in his older brother Birch and so kind of passing around the instruments in the family, he ended up with the mandolin, which he kind of figured out how to play. Kind of like a fiddle, in some ways, and it was one of the innovations he brought to that instrument.
But Monroe started his professional recording career in 1936 with his brother Charlie and brother duos were really common and popular in country music at that time. You had the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys and all these different groups and the Monroe Brothers were very successful right away with their recordings, and they played on the radio a lot. They moved around in different cities and worked on different radio stations, but they had a different sound, kind of a unique sound that was very energetic. They sang in higher keys and played everything at faster tempos, and Bill was already emerging as a virtuosic mandolinist
And then they split up as a duo, as an act, in 1939, right? Brothers fight, and they got into a fight and they split up and they each wanted to create their own band, which they did. And Bill created, at that point, The Bluegrass Boys, so and the music genre that we now know is bluegrass was actually named for his band, not the other way around. It was very common for country bands at the time to adopt names that had something to do with the place they were from. So, in fact, Charlie's band was the Kentucky Partners. So, Bill went with the Bluegrass Boys, so the nickname for Kentucky instead of the word Kentucky and he experimented in the early 40s with his lineup in different sounds. And they were kind of new banjo styles that were becoming more popular. New ways of playing the banjo, and the band is generally acknowledged as having created the model for bluegrass, the core sound of bluegrass.
The defining sound came together in 1945. And that's when Bill hired Lester Flatt of Sparta, TN, on guitar and lead vocals. Bill, usually sang the high harmony. He didn't sing that much lead at that point in his career, and Earl Scruggs on the banjo. And Earl was a real master of this three-finger style that mostly came out of the Carolinas where he was from, and he didn't invent that style, but he was an early master of it, and he had his own spin on it. And he was so good. And they made such a huge impression at the Opry and in other places that it became known as Scruggs-style banjo, and everybody emulated him. But he wasn't the only one doing something similar at that time. There was Don Reno, who played with Monroe for a little while, and there was Snuffy Jenkins. There were others.
And so, bluegrass is a really interesting style or genre because it is simultaneously, paradoxically the most progressive and the most backward-looking genre of country music or of string band music. Specifically, it was invented as a professional kind of music, and has that kind of standard in terms of musical ability. It has to be played in a very precise way and one has to have a lot of technical chops in order to play bluegrass well. But it also consciously developed this kind of backward-looking nostalgic sound at a time when country music was becoming more and more electrified. Bill was deliberately retrogressive in his outlook. You know, no drums, no electric instruments, although he did occasionally have some on his studio records, but generally speaking, acoustic instruments entirely, so there was something--even from the get-go in 1945--there was something when they walked out on stage with all acoustic instruments and played string band music, even the audience at the time thought that was a throwback, but the irony is that the way they were playing string band music was really, really progressive and forward looking.
[MARTIN] And Flatt and Scruggs went on to. I mean, they had great musical careers. They recorded the theme song for the Beverly Hillbillies.
[REISH] Yeah, for the Beverly Hillbillies TV show, and they also made some cameo appearances in the show a couple of times as themselves. And right around the same time in the 60s, they also gave their career, and more broadly, they gave bluegrass a big, big boost when one of their older recordings was used in the Bonnie and Clyde film. Warren Beatty, who was the star but also the director and producer, I believe, chose an older recording of theirs. So, it was made in 1949. It was called the Foggy Mountain breakdown. It's an instrumental, it's a banjo and bluegrass standard, and he chose that as the theme song, particularly for the chase scenes. He wanted that really fast energetic banjo sound. So, between that and the Beverly Hillbillies... And a few other bands were also making appearances, like on the Andy Griffith Show. They had a band out of Missouri called the Dillards who appeared on the show as the Darlings. They had repeated appearances on the Andy Griffith Show. So, bluegrass was kind of benefiting from this. This popular media exposure in the in the 60s.
[MARTIN] And there's like a Bill Monroe Bluegrass festival.
[REISH] In Bean Blossom, IN. I used to go there when I lived in Chicago. I was going there every summer for many, many years, and so I know that that location well. And this actually takes us back to the Center for Popular Music because we have a collection there of recordings that were made at Bean Blossom, which was, you know, Bill Monroe's own. He owned the park, and he has his bluegrass festival there every year. But it was just a regular kind of country music park, which were common earlier in the 20th century and he owned it from the early 1950s on until he passed.
And a set of recordings were made by a local guy who became friends with Monroe who had technical knowledge. He was a TV and electronics repairman. So, he had this equipment, and he was a big fan of the music, and he would go in there and record the shows. He had to convince Monroe that this was not going to hurt his career. It's almost, I sometimes think of it, like as a prototype for like Dead Heads recording the Grateful Dead, which the Grateful Dead was wise enough to understand that it was actually going to boost their career, not cut into their record sales. And so this guy, whose name was Marvin Hedrick, who's long since passed. But he befriended Monroe actually had to convince Monroe that this would actually be good for his career. It would sort of build up the mystique and so on. And so, Hedrick from the mid 50s until his death in the early 70s made lots and lots of recordings at Bean Blossom, which is in Brown County, IN, and those recordings circulated a little bit in bootleg form over the years. I mean, some of them made it out to California. Speaking of the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia was really into bluegrass early in his career and he and David Grisman and some of the other West Coast guys got really, really fanatical about Bill Monroe's music based on these bootleg tapes from Bean Blossom. Jerry even came one year to Bean Blossom because he wanted to audition for the Bluegrass Boys, which he never joined the band, but he did come out and play, made himself copies of these tapes, and so they took on a real kind of legendary status.
Well, the original tapes ended up with Marvin Hedrick’s sons, and through my own connections in the bluegrass community, I got in touch with Marvin's sons, who are now in their 60s. I believe Gary and David Hedrick, who live still in Indiana, and I convinced them to donate those materials to the center. We applied for and received funding from the Grammy Foundation. The Grammy Museum now has the grant program to digitize those tapes and catalog them. One of our researchers, John Fact, he spent many, many hours listening to all the tapes and recording the songs and the timings and everything that he heard on the tapes, and all that now is searchable in our database. And the recordings themselves, of course, are still under copyright and various under licensing restrictions, so we weren't able to just post all that stuff on the Internet, although people in the bluegrass community were begging us to do that. But we weren't able to do that. But if someone comes here, of course they can. They can listen to anything if they're on site, and I know that is tough to do right now, but in general, that's the best way to get access to materials like that. So that was a particular collection that came out of the Bill Monroe kind of headquarters, so to speak, at Bean Blossom, IN. And you know, through this successful grant project, we were able to get that stuff preserved and digitized and make it available.
[MARTIN] Yeah, it's amazing, and I heard a story related to that. The festival. Either Bill Monroe's daughter or granddaughter. I mean still active in this, and so when anybody brings a drum kit out on the stage to start playing, she'd just start screaming at them. “That's not grass!”
[REISH] I've never seen that happen with Bean Blossom. I'm trying to think if anybody ever did [that]. I mean, there are a few bluegrass recordings over the years with drums on them like Jimmy Martin, for example, who billed himself as the King of Bluegrass, started his career playing with Bill Monroe, but then led his own band Sunny Mountain Boys for many years. And they are a legendary group.
But in the in the 60s and 70s, Jimmy Martin was trying to move more towards mainstream country a little bit. I mean, it was still bluegrass. Still, it had banjos in it, and you know that that kind of sound, but he was trying to make it a little bit more palatable to country radio and to a country audience. So, he was using drums sometimes. Reno and Smiley, another big act in that same time period, was using electric guitar every once in a while. I mean, there are no hard and fast rules about bluegrass, although people joke about the "bluegrass police” today. If you go to a jam session and you know show up with the wrong instrument or play it in the wrong way, you know you'll get stared down.
It's happened to me. I know better now, but in my younger days, sometimes I had a few bluegrass faux pas here and there, but it really depends on the context. Depends on the place. I mean, you know I grew up in Georgia and go into bluegrass jams and festivals around there, where things tend to be a little bit stricter, kind of hewing towards the Monroe model as kind of the paradigm of pure bluegrass. But then the years I lived in Chicago, and I'd go to, you know, bluegrass jams there, which sometimes turned into, you know, people show up with a hammer dulcimer or some other kind of non-bluegrass folk instrument and it was always welcome. Just a different attitude and a different community of people.
I'm not here to say that one is better or worse than the other, but just very different. So, you know, I've learned going to bluegrass events in various places to kind of feel if I don't know it. If I don't not familiar with the place and the people you know. My first time, I need to feel out like OK, what's going on here? What's what are the parameters, you know? Sort of a social evaluation and negotiation. But there are scholars by they have written about this kind of stuff. Quite the social dynamics of the bluegrass jam and the bluegrass festival and the whole scene because it's quite distinct. It's unique. I mean, I can't really think of other genres where you go to a festival and everybody's in the parking lot jamming. I mean that doesn't happen at a jazz festival. Or maybe Cajun, but that's a much, much smaller community. And it is concentrated mostly, and you know, still in Southwest Louisiana.
But bluegrass courses all over the country and all over the globe. I mean, you can go to bluegrass festivals in Japan and South America and places in Europe and so on. And each place and each community have their own social dynamics that have to be negotiated.
[MARTIN] And it's one that the very interesting things about music. These genres and sub genres and sub genres. And there's this culture that is formed around this. Whether it's, you know, dress and an attitude, and it just how you approach and listen to the music or play the music. And it's fascinating.
[REISH] Very much so, and there's been an increasing trend over the last, I don't know, 20 years maybe of scholars in ethnomusicology who are interested in those kinds of phenomena, those kinds of dynamics and sometimes not even just the musicians. But you know there's a whole area of study called fandom. You know, how do country music fans behave? I mean, I know a scholar here in town who is affiliated with Vanderbilt University, who studies country music fandom here in Music City. And what happens on Lower Broadway and at the Ryman and various other places and all the social dynamics. And you know, it veers towards a sociological kind of approach, and that's one of the great things about music and music scholarship. It’s that you can study it from a historical approach, anthropological, sociological, more strictly musical approach, which tends to be my own approach.
I was trained as a musicologist, so in my discipline we tend to focus primarily on the music itself. How it works and how it's put together and what it sounds like and so on. I mean, we certainly try to take context into consideration because that’s always very important, but [there are] different kinds of scholars who are using different methods. They might have a different goal, even if they're studying the same music that I'm studying. They might be trying to understand the people making it more of an anthropological goal or approach, and it's all good. I mean, we all learn from each other and benefit from one another's work. But that's one of the great things about studying a living art form. We have the art products themselves, which we can study. But we can also study the people that make it, and we can study the social dynamics, the economics, the racial components. I mean, there's so many different ways to come at this. It is just sort of endlessly fascinating.
[MARTIN] One of my favorite things about country fandom is the argument, and I'm sure this happens in other genres, what's real country music?
[REISH] Oh boy, yeah you're going to open that Pandora's box?
[MARTIN] It's often sort of the music you grew up listening to. You know that was real country and then, but then the people at your age, that time will say it...
[REISH] And it's interesting to see as a historian over time. How has that debate or that conversation shifted, and also how it's kind of repeated itself over and over again. So, when honky tonk came along, you know it was like this new thing. And of course, some people push back against it. And half a generation later, it became the standard of tradition. You know when, when the Nashville Sound started to develop and everybody thought, well, that's not real country music. But now we look back on Patsy Cline as one of the icons of country music, you know? So, it's always a moving target. History is always a moving target. It's not just about what happened. Sorting out the facts of what happened, it's about understanding the dynamics around all of it and understanding how we look at it today and how people looked at it at the time, and it's so rich. It's just an endless supply of interesting questions that one can ask.
[MARTIN] Absolutely, and one of the questions we'd like to ask all the guests on Open Stacks is: what have libraries meant to you in your life, and you work.
[REISH] Well libraries, and I'll expand that to say libraries and archives, for years and years as a historical musicologist, which is how I was trained in graduate school and in my early academic career as a faculty member at other institutions, most of the work that I did, most of the research and scholarship that I did were--not exclusively by any stretch--but they were strongly based on archival work.
So, I've spent a lot of time in libraries and archives and learning how to navigate them, learning how to find what I needed, making wonderful discoveries that I didn't expect, and learning how to pull relevant information out of the source. Learning how to, in a sense, interrogate the sources, not just take everything on the page for what it appears to be necessarily, but use that as a way to start asking other kinds of questions. and even as my interests have shifted, you know I used to be a scholar of 20th century Italian classical music and spent many hours in the Middle Tennessee and all in in in Rome, poring over old older documents of various kinds. And then around in the early 2000s, kind of shifted my scholarly focus towards American vernacular music, which is music that I have played since childhood.
But when I turned my scholarly attention to it, I was still engaged in archival and library work, and I told the story earlier that I had my first encounter with the Center for Popular Music coming here as a researcher before I worked here, before I lived here. And you know, Library of Congress and various other places? I mean, I've done work in the Vatican Library, which is really something. Let me tell you to be sitting in a reading room and there's an actual Rafael fresco on the wall right there. It's kind of hard to concentrate.
And now you know since 2014, since I came to MTSU, I have had the privilege of directing a major research center. Now I mean to be absolutely straightforward. I'm not an archivist, I am the director of an archive, but I rely on my staff. I have two certified archivists on the staff, two librarians, and a couple of other people. I mentioned an audio preservation specialist, so I have experts, highly trained and highly skilled qualified experts in their respective fields who I rely on for their expertise and I try to set the, you know, the kind of overarching strategic goals and I work with donors and so on, but it's been really, really rewarding for me to kind of move, in a sense, to the other side of the desk. Not just the patron coming in to use the materials, but now someone who's involved in collecting them and prioritizing them and making them accessible to other people and supporting faculty, teaching and student learning. And you know, it's only kind of increased my love and appreciation for archives and archival materials.
These are repositories of information; these are people's lives. These are people's creations that are, except whether they're scholarly books, or, you know, some kind of primary source material, whatever it may be, some person or group of people created this thing and left it for us, and we can learn from it and be inspired by it. And as archivists and librarians, we can help to preserve that and pass it along to subsequent generations. And that's a really big responsibility, but at the same time, it's a great privilege to be to be in that position. So, I love working at the CPM as a musicologist. I feel like I not only have, you know, the keys to the candy store, but I'm completely in charge of the candy store, as it has certainly made my own scholarship a lot easier because if I want to, you know, check something in a hymnal from 1876. You know, I just have to go across the hall and pull it off the shelf because our collection is that rich. That I very often can find just what I'm looking for teaching or for research, whatever it may be. So, it's a really great responsibility, but a great privilege as well.
[MARTIN] Well, thank you Greg. It's been a fascinating conversation and we're happy to have you on Open Stacks.
[REISH] Thank you, Jason. It's been a pleasure.
[MARTIN] Thank you for listening to Open Stacks. To learn more about today's episode, visit the show’s webpage at library.mtsu.edu/openstacks.
If you would like to learn more about James E. Walker Library, then visit us on the web at library.mtsu.edu, on Facebook at MTSU Library, on Twitter @mtsulibrary, or on Instagram @walkerlibrary.
If you liked what you heard today, then please subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher. Have a great day.
[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast of the James E. Walker Library.
I'm joined in Studio 473 today by associate professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media Dr. Ken Blake. Ken, how are you?
[KEN BLAKE] I'm doing fine, thank you.
[MARTIN] Great. Let me tell everyone a little bit more about you. Ken is a native of Huntington, WV, and he holds a bachelor’s and master's degree in journalism for Marshall University. Although I'm sure he has switched allegiances to MTSU, he has a doctorate in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ken joined the faculty of MTSU School of Journalism and Strategic Media in 1996 and has taught undergraduate courses in writing and reporting as well as graduate courses in media theory and empirical research methodology. He heads the College of Media and Entertainment's Office of Communication Research, where Ken and his since retired colleague Dr. Bob Wyatt co-founded the MTSU poll, a twice annual statewide scientifically-valid telephone poll of Tennessee adults that ran from 1998 to 2016.
His most recent scholarly project is a book co-authored with colleague Dr. Jason Hranicky, titled Data Skills for Media Professional. Before he earned his doctorate and joined the MTSU faculty, Ken worked as a reporter for the Herald Dispatch, the Gannett-owned daily newspaper in Huntington.
His wife Amy works as an inclusion teacher at Cedar Grove Elementary School in Smyrna and they have two sons, one is a senior in high school and the other is a junior in video and production, film, video and film production at MTSU.
And so, Dr. Katie Foster, your colleague in journalism, recommended you as a guest and said you were very interesting, and she really wasn't kidding when I read your bio and looked at your website.
[BLAKE] She's pretty interesting yourself.
[MARTIN] Yes, she is. And your website, which we will link to in the show notes, contains a lot of really good stuff. You have many courses on journalism, data analysis, coding, and I want to talk about all that in a bit, but what really drew my interest is your COVID-19 tracker, where you track the number of new cases in percentage positives for Middle Tennessee counties, could you tell us more about your COVID tracking project?
[BLAKE] Sure, you know, I think one interesting thing about the project is kind of how it got started. I mean, when the whole crisis blew up back in February and March, I think we were all kind of finding different ways to cope, you know? And so, I find I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly of course, at home like everybody else. And being a numbers guy, I think that there's probably just something about tracking that virus and tracking it locally and so forth. But it certainly doesn't put me in control any more than I was, but I think it kind of made me feel that way and maybe feel better, so that's kind of how it got started.
And honestly it was a bear at first because the state, I don't know if anybody besides us number nerds would remember this, but the state was putting the data out in on the web in a PDF format, which is great to look at. It's terrible to work with from a from a data cruncher standpoint, so I actually had a couple of my data journalism students, and we kind of made this our pet project. Everyday, we would log onto the website and manually punch in those numbers and distill it for Sidelines. We did kind of a daily update for Sidelines, the student newspaper.
And that's kind of how it got started, and then thank goodness, the state eventually started putting in state up in a big spreadsheet. So now I've got it a little more automated than that.
[MARTIN] Now I've seen some debate about sort of what the best COVID data and sort of numbers to use are now. For instance, your site has the positive cases and positive percentage, and the others would say, well, what it really should rely on, say, is number of hospitalizations or things like that. So, what kind of made you decide to use those?
[BLAKE] The number of cases, right? Yeah, first of all, those concerns are absolutely valid and you know the real answer is yes to all of the above. If you really want to know what's going on with the virus in your community, you really need to follow all of those numbers all at once and not get wedded to any particular one. However, the two that I chose, which is the daily case count, that's a rolling seven-day average to kind of even out some of the variability that as well as positive test rate. I felt that these were the two that might give a quick relatively easy-to-understand overview of what's going on and also some of those numbers have come out. The state has begun releasing some of those numbers since before I got started so periodically, I add something new, and I've been eyeing the idea of adding the counts for the caseload, which I think is an interesting and good statistic to also follow.
One difficulty is the state, just not that long ago, revised its definition of how long it takes to recover from the virus. So, if you look at the chart, it's kind of deceptive. It looks like we had this huge dip in caseload about a month ago, and that wasn't the case. The state just said it's two weeks to recover instead of three, so that that gets a little interesting.
It was just kind of having to be journalistic about it and having to sort of boil it down to something that I thought people might actually want to follow. If I had some huge dashboard of data, first of all, it would take a lot of time to maintain, and secondly, I'm not sure anybody would pore through it.
[MARTIN] I talked to Katie about this as well that I think it's difficult to find sort of a good source where you can find you, know good numbers, but also just how again definitions change and I was reading some things like different kinds of testing places are required to report different numbers or they don't have to report the same kinds of things. So often, you're not even comparing apples to apples. You know it is pears and pineapples. It can be very difficult to figure out those what those numbers actually are.
[BLAKE] Yeah, the New York Times and the Washington Post both have pretty good virus tracking operations and they are an especially good source of information for state level data and to kind of know how your state compares to other states. You know, one thing to lookout is that your personal risk associated with the virus really has more to do with what's going on in your community than what's going on statewide, so you know it's also helpful, I think, to know what's happening at the statewide level, and those are two pretty good sources right on page one if you if you go to an NYTimes.com or washingtonpost.com. You can't miss them.
[MARTIN] So what got you interested in in data analysis, and looking at all this kind of sort of big data?
[BLAKE] Well, you know there's a story here, like I suppose a lot of people, I came out of my undergraduate journalism experience totally phobic about numbers, I just I couldn't stand math. I had a terrible experience in high school with math and I was pretty sure I was never going to do anything with math. So, I was working at the Herald Dispatch, my first and only full-time newspaper gig, and I guess a fit of bizarre generosity Gannett sent three of us to a data journalism conference in Indianapolis, put on by NICAR, the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, and I learned how to use this spreadsheet. This was all new to me, and thought it was pretty interesting. And so, I came back home and of course my editor immediately wanted some kind of payoff for this training session that he'd sent me too, and it turned out that that was an election year.
We had a mayoral candidate who had raised something like five or six times the amount of money that any mayoral candidate in that little town. Huntington, at the time, I think had about 80,000 people in it, [and he raised] more than anybody had ever raised. So of course a natural question was where is all this money coming from? So, I fired up my little spreadsheet. The whole thing, by the way, you fit on one of those little 3 1/2 floppy things with room to spare. But anyway, I fired that thing up and started analyzing his campaign contributions, who his donors were and also the contributions and donors of his opponent. And I found out that a sizable chunk of his donations was coming from out of state, and they were also coming from business leaders, both in the local community and out of state business leaders.
And you know, this is Huntington, WV. It's a highly unionized town. It's a very blue collar and that just really didn't set well with the with the voters locally, and he also did some other things too. He lied about some things and that sort of thing and that was his own fault, but anyway, the upshot was that he not only lost the election, but he lost the election in in literally every precinct in the city, and lost to his opponent, who became the first ever female mayor of my hometown. And I thought this is fantastic. I've got to learn more about this, and that's really how I got hooked.
That was the beginning. I went on from there to analyze census numbers and then went to UNC Chapel Hill and studied under a guy named Phil Meyer, author of Precision Journalism, which was kind of one of the founding books, if not the founding book inn the data journalism movement. So, that's sort of how it all came about.
[MARTIN] You know we talk a lot about sort of different kinds of literacies. We talk about financial literacy. In the library, we talk a lot about information literacy, but I think that statistical and data literacy is just a huge gap in our collective knowledge as a society. I mean, I have a doctorate and it finally dawned on me that my understanding of statistics is that I was taught how to I can create a study, put the numbers in SPSS and then read and output. But I don't necessarily understand statistics and an understand a lot about how you can manipulate things and how to really critically think about data. And I think that's such an important skill, but it seems like so few people actually have that.
[BLAKE] Yeah, an and it's also an easy skill to forget. It just so happens that this past week, my senior in high school is taking an honor statistics class, and so all last week, they were learning about area under the curve which is stuff I studied 20 some years ago, but I'm like you, I put the numbers into SPSS and I get my results. So, I was having to relearn all this and then relearn it in a way that I could tutor him through it. He's learning remotely. He's at home. So that was an experience, but we got him through it. He took his test, and we're waiting his grades, so we'll see how he did, but he seemed to understand it pretty well.
But yeah, statistical literacy, I think is becoming more and more important. You know, it wasn't that long ago when we just didn't have that much data available in public discourse. And statisticians mainly worked at insurance companies doing actuarial tables. You know, or in academia doing academic research. But I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of this. All of the sudden, we're just awash in data, and I think it's more important than ever for folks to be able to understand that it takes a little bit more than just, you know, being able to use Excel and crank out a chart or two in order to really get the truth out of numbers and have a clear understanding of what's going on.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and as I mentioned before we started, I just finished reading a book called How To Lie with Statistics, which was, you know, written in the 50s, but still so much of it applicable today and how you present numbers to make a case for or against whatever it is that you want and then I came across a tweet claiming that the GDP had dropped. It was 30 some percent or something, and somebody was saying, well, that's actually an annualized number because the GDP did something like 9% between first and second quarter because the second quarter, we were under lock down, but this annualized assumes there's three more quarters of that. And it's like, yeah, that's not how it works. And you know then saying the preliminary projections for the third quarter GDP is up this amount. So if you analyze it as so again... This is so critical to understand not just the numbers, but how the numbers are presented in what that number actually represents and what it actually says.
[BLAKE] I agree, and I think for your sort of average layperson out there who doesn't really have time to take graduate level stats classes the way you and I have, the best advice probably is to get yourself a good source of information or a couple of good sources of information. People whose analysis you can truly rely on. People who truly know what they're talking about and listen to them because they will generally steer you right. But you know don't put too much stock in every, graphic in every chart that comes across your Facebook or Twitter feed because those things are awfully easy to crank out.
[MARTIN] Yeah, you know, especially in the early parts of the pandemic, I found some of the best information from people, kind of much like yourself, that had a statistical background, had an interest in data and were presenting data, in a very unbiased, unfiltered sort of way, and doing a good job of explaining what that meant. And they were I, I thought far and away the best source of information for that. So, it is about kind of finding them. And of course, on social media and the Internet, there's a lot of people out there and you just have to find out who you can trust and who is a good source.
[BLAKE] It's been interesting to watch how data-based coverage of COVID-19 has evolved because you know when this all got started, it really was just kind of a hit-and-miss kind of activity by people who were doing what I was doing, sort of sitting in their in their living rooms, tooling their thumbs and thinking, hey, I could actually do something with these numbers. And you know, at one point there was a news organization that actually put out a call for volunteers. The COVID Tracking Project. It's actually still active. It’s just volunteers to gather data from their state health departments and consistently and reliably put this data into some sort of database, and so this is sort of grassroots movement to build this data. And then, finally others stepped in. The New York Times stepped in. Washington Post stepped in, and the Times in particular began a GitHub site and began compiling this data and making it available.
But you know, there at the at the outset, it was very much this sort of, you know, spit and baling wire kind of effort by ordinary folks.
[MARTIN] So, when a person comes across some data in the media. let's say like those GDP numbers or something, do you have some kind of sort of advice? So, what are some things that the layperson should look for or what should they kind of think about when they look at look at data and statistics.
[BLAKE] Yeah, sure. Well, I guess my first piece of advice would be true of really anything read in media. Triangulate. Look for look for other reliable sources who are saying the same thing and just crack open Google and see if there's some convergent validity about whatever point this is, so that's one strategy. Another strategy is, you know, context really matters. If you're looking at some sort of a chart or some kind of a graphic, look at the scale, you know? Does this scale go from zero percent to 100% as it probably should? Because if you if you make a chart and you make the scale from like, depending on what you're talking about, from say 50% to 60%, then a three- or four-percentage point swing is going to look like a huge swing on the chart, but you have to remember that it's not on a zero to 100 scale, and if you actually put it on a zero to 100 scale, it looks like barely a blip. So, that's important.
Remember that two points don't make a trend. If COVID-19 was up yesterday and down today, well that's two points in a 48-hour period. Let's look at the broader trend because there are lots of reasons why numbers can go up and down. Many of them just random reasons, right? And so that's another important thing to look at, I think.
[MARTIN] Yeah, there's a good Twitter account I follow called Calling BS. That's not the full name of that, and they look particularly at how data is represented through graphs and graphic representation of data. So, they call out a lot of that. One really egregious thing that they had on there was a bar graph but they have flipped it and so is going top to bottom which they said, well, you know you can do that but the thing is, when you just glanced at this, what it looked like was, this trend was going down. But of course, this trend was going up very steeply and just like no, you're actually very willfully misrepresenting this data.
You mentioned earlier and we talked about the importance of local community-level data and that seems to be one of the things you're interested and one of the things that you've been working on a lot. Can you talk a little bit about kind of the importance of local level data journalism and kind of what you've been doing to help promote that?
[BLAKE] Sure, yeah. So, the data journalism comes out of... Really, it's one of a number of reactions to the sort of just-the-facts journalism that emerged in the early 1900s, epitomized probably by people like Adolph Ochs from the New York Times.
You know, and to Ochs’ credit, he was coming out of the yellow journalism era and there was a need to kind of tone things down a little bit and focus more on the facts of the situation. But the reality is, if you if you just do that. If you just report on the facts, and that's what people say they want out of journalism, you'll miss an awful lot because journalists themselves don't necessarily have a way of discerning what facts are. What they do is they go ask experts what facts are, and you know one of the hard lessons of the 20th century is, you know, if you went and you asked a guy named Joe McCarthy what the facts were, Joe McCarthy would tell you the State Department's full of communists. And if you're a just-the-facts kind of journalist, you find that that you have to just report that, and you have no way of sort of informing your audience that this guy is full of hot air. That he has no evidence for this, and there were things that were sort of reactions in journalism to that kind of reporting. The idea that, you know, we obviously have to stay grounded in the facts, but we also have to have some way of challenging the facts. Some way of challenging what the prevailing narrative is, and data journalism is one of those things because if a source tells me something, and I have data to the contrary, then I can say, well, here's what my data says. Here's what my analysis says is perfectly transparent. You can sit right here and replicate it if you like. So, how do you explain what you just told me in light of these data?
So, do you see what that does? That puts you as a journalist in it and allows you to speak more authoritatively, and actually more objectively, if what we mean by objective is based on observable fact, which is, I think what it ought to mean. So that's kind of an overview of the movement itself.
Phil Meyer, for example, my mentor I mentioned earlier, got his start interviewing randomly sampling, surveying people who had participated in riots in Detroit in the in the 1970s, and the prevailing wisdom was that, well, you know, your typical rioter was this out-of-towner who was at the very bottom of the socioeconomic status. What his surveying showed was no, they were local and they were really from all levels of socioeconomic status, but he did that analysis on a mainframe computer because that's all that was available, and you know, up until really fairly recently, it was difficult for just a local newsroom to have the kind of computing power necessary to analyze large quantities of data. Well, that's changed, but what hasn't changed is kind of mindset that data journalism is something that only the big papers do. Something the Times does. Or the Washington post. Not my little hometown newspaper, and yet my sort of passion is to counter that myth and say, look, you know maybe you can't do everything the Times does. Maybe they've got this wonderful graphics department that turns out these terrific maps and everything but, you've got access to a spreadsheet. You've got access to some freeware type mapping software. You've got access to some basic knowledge about statistics and data. Just use it, and increasingly again, COVID-19 demonstrates this. There is a lot of locally relevant of readily available data out there to be analyzed by journalists.
I sent an email, for example, a couple of weeks ago to the county election commission and signed up to be one of the people who get early voting data, so I get this data set emailed to me every day during early voting and I can tell you, I’m not going to do this, but I could actually make a map of every single person in Rutherford County who has voted their addresses. So, I mean, that's it's a huge database, a huge data set, and it's just sitting there waiting for people to do stuff with.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and so this I think is where your book comes in. Data Skills for Media Professionals. Can tell us a little bit about that book.
[BLAKE] Sure, it's really aimed at journalism students who are coming into their journalism career as I did. Terrified of numbers, basically, and so one of the points I try to make early on in the book is that yeah, this is not a book about math. This is a book about getting computers to do math because they're really good at it. They do it fast, they don't complain, and they don't make mistakes. What your role as the data journalist is to think mathematically, to take the data, the results of the computer give you and ask yourself, do these make sense and what does this data mean? And am I looking at all of the data sources and all of the variables that I need to look at? So, that's kind of what the book does. I guess that would be the philosophy of the book and then the sort of practical side of the book is that there are free tools available.
When I first started teaching journalism, I focused on Microsoft Excel because it seemed to be installed on everybody's computers and then Macs got popular. You know and they have a version of Excel, but it's not quite the same one and I was using. I found myself teaching like two different versions of the same class, and so I hit up on Google sheets, which is a spreadsheet that's available in the Google Suite. If you have a Gmail account, you have access to this. And what's terrific about it is it works the same way on a Mac or a PC, or even a Chromebook so that makes it a lot easier to teach and to write a book about. And so, and it's free, and it's actually pretty powerful. It gets a little slow if you if you have a really large data set, because it operates over an Internet connection, but at the same time it's. It's a pretty terrific tool, and there's a mapping tool attached to it, so you can make online interactive maps.
I'm going to be making a map of my neighborhood for Halloween showing where all the all the trick or treat houses are and you click on an icon for a house and a little manual pop-up and tells you whether you go ring the doorbell at this house or will they have have candy at the end of the driveway--the way they should by the way, and that sort of thing. So yeah, so it's really easy to do and anybody can, and that's kind of my pitch to journalism students.
[MARTIN] And by the way, full size candy bars at my house.
[BLAKE] Yeah, there you go, absolutely. Full size candy bars. Good for you.
[MARTIN] But this also kind of brings up the importance of local media, and over I don't know, the past 20 years or so, with so many different things happening in media and the Internet and society and all that, you've seen a downturn in local media.
[BLAKE] I would use the word bloodbath. It has been bad and what has happened here is that if you think about what newspapers did locally in in the era before the Internet, you know the newspaper was really the hub of things like classified advertising, personal ads and certainly local advertising for your car. Lots of department stores and all that sort of thing. And you know, when the Internet came along the Internet basically unbundled all of those services from local newspapers. So, all of a sudden, your classifieds were on Craigslist and your personals are on Tinder and your car advertising was on cars.com and stuff like that. And of course, this robbed the local newspapers of the revenue that they needed to do journalism, which by in and of itself, is not really a moneymaker. So, newspapers have responded by trying to put paywalls in place, which they probably should have done from the start. But it's not going to make up for the revenue that newspapers have lost due to the decline in those physical ad dollars. Those aren't coming back.
But data journalism is one of the things that is actually working somewhat well for newspapers that are going toward a new model. If you look at the Texas Tribune, it is this is a nonprofit newspaper. I think it’s a digital-only newspaper. So, they operate based on donations. Kind of like National Public Radio does. But one of the things they do to gain revenue is they compile data and then they make this data available to their subscribers, their web visitors. They monetize it just a little bit to go look at some of their databases. You have to like click on a little Google survey first of all, and they get about a nickel for every one of those. But it adds up.
And one of the databases they have, for example, they got this database actually from ProPublica. It's a database of local doctors and every pharmaceutical representative that that a doctor has gotten anything valuable from, like a lunch or a freebie or something like that. So, you can, before you go see your doctor, look up your doctor and see what drug reps have gone to visit your doctor. And then maybe go into your appointment armed with the knowledge of what, what drugs your doctor might want to sell you on or something like that and why. And that's a database that has gotten a lot of hits for them. But again, it demonstrates how locally compiled and available data can be monetized, and maybe help solve at least a little bit of the revenue problem that local newspapers have.
[MARTIN] So, what was the name of that that site again?
[BLAKE] That's the Texas Tribune.
[MARTIN] And you know, David Simon, who's course familiar or famous for The Wire and all that, was a journalist for a long time and he was being interviewed about what the death of local media means. You don't have anybody who's down there covering what's happening in City Hall and all this stuff. And he said these things have a direct effect on your everyday life.
I often complain about the lack of infrastructure and planning and traffic in Murfreesboro and that will that's directly related to the mayor and city commissioners and all of that. And if you don't have the people covering what they're doing, they can kind of get away. Absolutely now with a lot of stuff going on. And I’m not accusing Murfreesboro commissioners of corruption, but I'm just, you know, these things are gone. Local journalism makes local government responsive to its citizens.
You know, and you mentioned something about talking to students and in your book that looking at these numbers and it doesn't make sense. And I think this is such an important question. There's a statistician, Nassim Nicholas. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he's Ph.D. in statistics. He made a lot of money in Wall Street doing some various different things and all this, but when he looks at studies and he'll have sort of replication issues in certain fields, and his thing is that he looks at it and their conclusions and he asks if this makes sense to his grandmother. Would his grandmother read this and be like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
And I think it's on one hand, you know there are experts out there who are experts and we should listen to them. But the other hand, they're not sort of all-knowing and they don't get to dictate everything is. At some point, you can say that doesn't make any sense. Why are you saying this thing does this? Being able to trust your own understanding in your own sort of intelligence is really important.
[BLAKE] Yeah, and I think people need to understand how science works too. You know, one source of frustration for your average layperson, especially in the face of something like COVID-19, is it seems like every day there's a new study out saying, well, you know the you know the real cause of serious cases of COVID-19 versus non serious cases is this. And then the next day there seems to be something contradictory. Well, what's going on there is you're having study after study after study done, but not all studies are created equal. Some involve, you know sort of randomized group comparison structure. Some are just what we called sort of one-shot case studies, where there's no control group and then and so there's varying quality within the studies that have to do with the way the study is designed. And then you know even a well-designed study needs to be replicated before you take it all that seriously because the standard sort of statistical test is 5% is or less that this is the result, we got could be random. Well, that's 5%, you know so yeah, we need another study that does the same thing and gets the same results before you can really begin to trust that this is valid. So those are the things to keep an eye out in media coverage of something like the COVID-19 or anything. Is this finding being replicated and are trustworthy sources saying this was a good study and is this is a finding we can take to the bank?
[MARTIN] Yeah, one of the interesting things about COVID happening now in the era of internet, social media and all this is you get to see so much stuff happening in real time. And so, you see these studies come out. I was just reading. There's a great cycle retraction watch. You get daily emails from them about scholarly articles have been retracted, and there's a giant percentage of studies that are being retracted because it was it was coming out too quickly. They were trying to get data out and then you get to kind of see all this happen in real time, and you realize in the short term, there's just a lot of noise. It takes a long time before you sort of find what's happening and what's going on, and when you're in the middle of it, can be very frustrating and very confusing, and you can just say, well, no one knows anything and let’s just go out and do whatever we want.
[BLAKE] Yeah, in the urgency of finding obviously a vaccine for COVID-19 and in the interim effective treatments for COVID-19, it has produced, as you say, an awful lot of noise because we're all trying to find what's going to work. And in many ways, it's better to try to find something and to report the results that you that you get. But yeah, it's very important to let that process kind of play out and let things be tested and replicated before we before we take it to the bank.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and then of course you have all these researchers who want to get rich and famous.
[BLAKE] So, you know, there’s that too.
[MARTIN] Now you also have expertise in coding and you talk about this on your website, and obviously you use a lot of your coding to gather data. How did your interest in coding start? Was it just a data gathering tool or are there some other things there?
[BLAKE] Yeah, and first of all, I would not call myself an expert. I'm a rank amateur at coding. I'm just getting started, but I think it it began really because I started running into data that was out of reach and I was able to use some kind of coding to get at it. You know, it's quite common on the web for data to appear in Excel format or even some kind of a flat ASCII file or something like that, but increasingly if you want data from a web-based source, you have to use something called an application programming interface, an API and that's it's basically kind of an efficiency thing on the part of the data provider. It's a whole lot easier to set up a system for giving you what the sliver of the data that you that you might need for your project as opposed to just making the whole thing available to you all at once, especially if it's data that is updated frequently and so to access that kind of data, you have to know a little bit of coding and so that became kind of a source of frustration for me. Not being able to get that data and then also realizing that if it was frustrating for me, it must be frustrating for my students as well.
Um, you know, professors don't take kindly to limits on what is knowable or what is attainable, so I started learning myself, and then and then spent a lot of time watching YouTube and with people who know a whole lot more about coding than I do in order to piece together. You know, things that would work and so I've developed a number of scripts that that will access COVID-19 data in in various forms and I understand now generally what's going on in the in the in the program, so that if I want to access some other data source, I can do that, and I'm trying to pass that along to my students as well. My reporting students just last week had an introduction to coding with Python, and I think from what I've seen in the grading, about 75% of them got it so we'll keep trying.
[MARTIN] Yeah, you know I YouTube is such an amazing resource. I was talking to somebody recently who for some reason thought I should just adopt a child as a single man. It's like, you know, that the child's probably not going to do well in my care, like I've never even changed a diaper, and she's like, but there's YouTube. You can just go on YouTube and I was like, well, you know you got a point.
[BLAKE] I always wondered who I was going to hit up for basic home repair advice once my father passed away and it's like I'm just going to be on my own here. I'm not going to know how to do anything. Well, there's YouTube, thank goodness.
[MARTIN] And it's amazing too. All of that, just that the breadth of information that is on YouTube that people have decided to make a video of how you do something. And I'm glad because I've needed many of those videos. Yeah, certain times.
[BLAKE] There's a little video I put up about how to do a Chi square test in Microsoft Excel. This thing's been on the web for probably 15 years now. And I still get emails from people saying thank you so much. You've saved my dissertation, and I'm thinking your dissertation is based on a chi square test that you're doing in Excel? Are you sure? But anyway, I reply and say thank you very much. I'm glad it was helpful, yes.
[MARTIN] So, but also using coding, you are sort of build a database of headlines and keywords for in COVID-19 coverage, and you say you're using this to explore the concept of bandwidth in media coverage. So, can you talk a little bit more about that. Kind of what that means and what's all involved in this project?
[BLAKE] Sure, yeah, so I'll talk about the data set first. This is data that I've been using code to pull from something called GDELT. It's the it's an acronym for the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone. That's it. And so, GDELT scrapes content from media news, media sources worldwide and makes that content searchable and downloadable. And so, I have code that that scrapes data from headlines and keywords from nine national news sources like the Washington Post and New York Times, Wall Street Journal, broadcast outlets, Fox News and CNN, and so forth. And it compiles these headlines, and these keywords. I use natural language processing subroutine to go through the story and pull out the frequently mentioned words that are not common stop words and so all this goes into big database, and I've been keeping that up on a monthly basis, and so one of the things we can do with this is we can look at other issues, that kind of compete with COVID-19 for media coverage like just Donald Trump generally or something like that, or the Black Lives Matter movement, we can see how the volume of media coverage kind of shifts between these different issues, so you have a lot of coverage about Donald Trump, say in January and then COVID-19 comes along in February and March. And what happens? Well, you know the coverage of COVID-19 kind of displaces some of the coverage of Donald Trump. And then Black Lives Matter happens in in March and April, and that coverage kind of displaces COVID-19 coverage, and then and then eventually COVID-19 makes a comeback in terms of its coverage, and this isn't too surprising.
There's a theory in in media called the agenda setting theory and what it says is that the media are not all that good at telling you what to think in terms of what opinion you should hold, but they are amazingly successful at telling you what to think about and telling you what the most important issues of the day are, and the idea is that the more frequently media cover a given topic, the more it's sort of top of mind in public discourse. In public conversation, the more importance people attach that topic, and the more they think about it and talk about it. So that's not a new idea, but what is kind of new that we're looking at is this concept of bandwidth.
You know, originally media agenda setting studies were done by taking a random sample of fairly recent media content. Because it was impossible to look at all of it. Back before computers and digitized content. Well, now it's increasingly easy to truly look at all of it, and so the question that we're looking at is, well, you know what's the actual capacity of news media in a given news cycle? How much? How many words can they really put out there, you know? And the assumption is that it's not unlimited because there are only so many hours of the day. Only so many people on staff, so they probably do have to really make choices and tradeoffs in terms of how much coverage they're going to devote to say, Donald Trump versus COVID-19 versus Black Lives Matter.
And so, we're kind of looking, I think for the first time, at where those limits are and is there any way to predict kind of how much displacement goes on? If you've got this sort of finite amount of content, you could put out there. How do media decide how much to allocate to different topics? That's what we're investigating.
[MARTIN] You know, it's fascinating to me. Yeah, I've been around now for, you know... I guess I can really remember back to Bill Clinton. You know, having an understanding idea of presidency before that. It wasn't really paying attention and I kind of loath to start a political discussion. But one thing that fascinates me under Donald Trump's presidency is this how much he has dominated the media narrative. I don't think if you if you put Barack Obama and George Bush and Bill Clinton altogether. I don't know that they have as much media stories about them as Donald Trump. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but I mean, it's just it's amazing to me how it's just sort of Trump all the time and it seems like there's kind of an unlimited bandwidth on that.
Or you know you talked about displacing COVID, displacing Trump. And then it seems like somehow it comes the we're going to tie this back in to Trump. Obviously in some respects, obviously he's the president. So, there's many things that do relate back to him.
[BLAKE] Oh yeah, and there's obviously a lot of overlap. You know it's quite common to talk about both Donald Trump and COVID-19. Same story.
[MARTIN] When Trump is no longer president, whenever that happens to occur, I think there's going to be at least a few sad journalists. What are they were gonna write about, you know?
[BLAKE] Right, he does make the news a lot, and I think it's because he says and does so many, I would say outrageous, but certainly not typical things for a president. I mean, how often do you have a president where there's a story about him paying off a porn star who he had sex with while he's married, you know? That that would be kind of a career-ender in a normal political time, right?
But it's not, and so there's an awful lot of stuff. It seems to talk about and, and I think part of this is his use of Twitter has greatly speed up the sort of the number and frequency of pronouncements coming out of the White House. I mean, typically, presidential communication is very scripted and very vetted. Very, very deliberative even, but he's chunking out 50 and 60 tweets a day it seems. And it's a lot to keep up with.
[MARTIN] It seems like he's been around for forever too because he became with this sort of celebrity in the mid 80s. And if you look, he wasn't a particularly successful business person or real estate mogul, or any of this stuff, but he seemed very good at being able to manipulate media, getting his face on the cover of magazines and things, and because the magazine editors knew if you put him on the cover the magazine, it is going to sell so they could do sort of a nice interview with him. And so, he he's very been very adept at that, and I think you can see a lot of that happening.
And you know the temptation for journalists is irresistible. I mean, back when I was doing the MTSU poll, we knew that if we had a good Trump finding, we would get national coverage, and so. And you know the media, they have some soul searching to do. I think about how they have covered this presidency and what the lessons are.
[MARTIN] Yeah. Soul searching, I think is a good term.
Now you talked about what this the agenda setting theory. The media is not necessarily good at telling people what to think, but what to think about. And in this always kind of, I don't know, catch-22 or not, but you say why didn't this media outlet cover this event? and they'll say, well, it wasn't newsworthy. I said, well, you cover it and it's newsworthy.
And I read this years ago this book by Toby Young How Lose Friends. And, uh, not. It's a play on the Dale Carnegie title. And he's British and in his time, he was working for Conde Nast and he was working for, it must have been Esquire magazine. You know, talking about these editors will spend, you know, weeks and weeks agonizing over what were going to be the new fall fashions they had to predict these new fall fashions correctly. And he's like, don't you get it? Like whatever you say fall fashion is in fact, the new fall fashion. It doesn't matter, you know, right? So, it's these very fascinating subjects to talk about...
One of the things we like to ask everybody that that comes on this show is what have libraries meant to you in your personal and professional life?
[BLAKE] You know, I grew up in Huntington, WV, in not really poverty, but we didn't have a lot of money. You know, lived on a dirt road and didn't have a lot of books. Didn't have a lot of access to information, and the first time I walked into Marshall University's library... It's the university in my hometown, I had never seen so many books and so much information all in one place. And of course, it was intimidating at the time I was, I was writing a term paper as a senior in high school. I had no idea how to find my way around the stacks, but it was amazing to me at the time and this is even back in the card catalogue days. You know, I'm that old, but it was amazing to me that you could find information about anything, and I think that's probably an experience that that people like my sons will never have because they have the Internet at their fingertips. They can find any information they want and then some, you know, but so I think that was probably the early the earliest experience. It's like, “Oh my goodness, there's this whole wide world out there that that I had no idea was even findable, even readable, even perceivable.” And yet there it was in the library.
You know, I've appreciated the way libraries have moved toward making their content available digitally because it's a whole lot more convenient to sit at my house at 10:00 o'clock at night and download a PDF of the of the research paper I need as opposed to jumping in the car and driving to the university to the library making sure I got a pocketful of quarters so that I can photo copy the article out of whatever journal, but I think libraries are still sacred ground because this is where we deposit all of our knowledge and it's so important to do that.
[MARTIN] Great, thank you very much. Well again, thank you for coming on the show. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Very interesting. Any last words of wisdom you want to send us out on?
[BLAKE] Well, maybe to answer the question people are wanting to know... So, my wife is also a Marshall graduate, so when we go to football games, she wears green, and I wear blue. She roots for where she got her degree from, I root for my paycheck comes from.
[MARTIN] Good answer. Alright, thank you very much, Ken.
Thank you for listening to open Stacks to learn more about today's episode, visit the shows webpage at library.mtsu.edu/openstacks.
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[JASON MARTIN] Welcome to Open Stacks, a podcast of the James E. Walker Library.
I am your host and interim dean of the James E. Walker Library, Jason Martin, and I'm joined in Studio 473 today by professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University, John Vile.
John, how are you?
[JOHN VILE] Doing great. Great to be here.
[MARTIN] Great, we're glad to have you. Let me tell our listeners a little more about you. John earned his BA from the College of William and Mary and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, both in government. He taught at McNeese State University, where he headed the Department of Social Sciences before coming to MTSU, where he served from 1989 to 2008 as chair of the department of political science and since 2008, as Dean of the University Honors College.
John has written and edited more than 40 books dealing with the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, the U.S. Constitution, the constitutional amending process, historic American documents, and leading American symbols such as the U.S. flag, the Liberty Bell, and the national anthem.
His most recent book is The Bible and American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide. John has a personal Library of several thousand books and collects political memorabilia and American historical prints, and his wife Linda is an active volunteer at Mufreesboro’s Lindebaugh Library. Now, we could have an entire podcast just reading the title of all of your books, but your latest one as I just said, is The Bible in American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide, which is the first reference book to focus on the key role that the Bible has played in American public life. So, I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your book.
[VILE] Well, as the subtitle indicates, it's almost like an encyclopedia in terms of the way it's organized. It's a single volume, but there are about 300 different entries and they vary from documents historic events, famous speeches, symbols, and songs. I appreciate the one that you started [the podcast] with. I thought maybe you were going to do The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is also in a very biblically based.
[MARTIN] Yes, yeah, I thought about that, but it was hard to find a musical version.
[VILE] This was perfect, very good.
[MARTIN] So, the description, like you said, providing essays on key speeches, books, documents, legal decisions, and other writings throughout American history that have sought to buttress arguments through citations to scripture or biblical figures. And so, you know, goes on and say you've provided an indispensable guide for scholars and students of religion in American history, law and political science to understand how America throughout its history has interpreted and applied the Bible to legal and political issues. And to me, it's pretty interesting because the Bible seemingly has been used to support all kinds of arguments often, and sometimes different sides of the same argument. And so religion seems to be kind of very similar in American politics. So you could start with you know the Founding Fathers were all atheist. Let's say, and then find supporting documentation to support that, and then you know, these people would say something like well. George Washington be disgusted by X or whatever it is, and you like you have no idea…
[VILE] I think there's actually overstatement on both sides. They clearly were not all atheists. The more common argument often from scholars is that is that many of them were deists and some of the most prominent ones seem to be, but they were sometimes peculiar deists. Franklin, for example, seemed to think that God specifically intervened on occasion on behalf of America, and that's not something that a typical deist would have thought, and there were some what we would call Bible-believing Christians. I mean, you know, you could put him in an evangelical church today and they’d feel fairly comfortable.
The New Englanders, of course, tended to be very strict. The founders before the founders. You know, they tended to be fairly strict Calvinists and the southern states tended to be more Anglicans. You know, Jamestown, we often think of, well, it was almost solely settled for economic reasons. But there were some who came over here for greater liberty than they had in England, and the most of them quickly lost this purpose, but someone thought they were going to come over and convert the Native Americans And in some cases, and this is a theme that particularly continues to persist in LDS theology, there were some who thought that Native Americans might be the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
Christopher Columbus, I think I have an entry on him in [my book]. One of the things that I discovered about him that I never knew was one of his impetuses for sailing west was to get enough gold so that he could raise an army and go liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. That’s a religious influence! You know, how pious was he, in a traditional sense? Well, we could argue about that. But yeah, you know a lot of people like us today, we tend to be ambiguous right where maybe we'll say we believe one thing and maybe we don't quite act up to do what we say.
[MARTIN] So, what got you interested in this in this topic, and I mean, where did this idea from this book come from?
[VILE] That's a great [question], I'm not sure. Now that I've gone to several others since then. And so, I'm not sure. I mean, I've always been interested in it. I come out of sort of an evangelical Christian tradition. So, I've always been interested in what the relationship between politics and religion is, and of course, as a constitutional scholar, there are a lot of cases that deal with prayer and Bible reading in schools and aid to parochial schools and issues that sort of hit around it.
And then you know, some of the speeches, I guess. When I prepared a series of four books on American documents that started in the colonial era and went up through the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I guess among the speeches that most impressed me were Lincoln’s. Particularly, the second inaugural address. And one of the things that's so profound about Lincoln.
We’ve already talked about how advocates on both sides of an issue. Well, you know, there was slavery in the Bible, so it must be right. And somebody else will say well, there was slavery in the Bible, but you've got the story of Exodus. And you have these stories about treating foreigners as equals and one of the things that I liked about Lincoln is he seemed, even before you had airplanes, where he could get a true 30,000-foot view. You know, he looked at the war and he said. The irony here is that we both profess to worship the same God, we read the same Bible. But God can’t equally answer the prayers of all of us because we're asking him for different things. And so, it's sort of in the hands of God, and I think a lot of times, we sort of want to take it out of the hands or the judgment of God and we're so certain that you know this text proves this, or that proves that and so on. I think the Bible does have meaning and I think there are some clear general patterns. But when you when you bring it down to a specific issue, I think one needs to be very careful with it.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and you can pick and choose so many things, and you have to have that complete view.
[VILE] Right. You know, for Christians in particular. I mean, I suppose the same would be true for Jews. You know, the revelation that Abraham had would not be as complete as that that Moses had and maybe not as complete as David would have when you added the psalms, but there is a notion that not everything that's recorded… The Bible is also a very truthful book in that it takes heroes that we want to put on a platform and it says, well, you know, David. Yes. He was the greatest King, but he committed adultery, and he had Uriah slain and he did things that were sometimes contrary. So, I think part of the notion is you gotta look at scripture in its completion.
And for Christians, this generally means what specifically were the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles? If I recall correctly, and I'm not meaning to put him down, but believe on an occasion, Trump was asked what his favorite verse was and he said something like eye for an eye. Well, that's in the Bible it. Maybe it was somebody else, but whoever it was, that's in the Bible. But then if you read the Sermon on the Mount, there's a suggestion and a lot of people by the way think that the eye for an eye was actually when it was given was a limiting principle because you know, if somebody knocked your eye out, you’d go kill them. But then Jesus comes along and says, Well--I'm trying to remember what--an eye for an eye, we end up with the Kingdom of people who are blind.
[MARTIN] I so one of my goals for this year was I found a program where you can read the Bible in 365 days.
[VILE] Oh, very good.
[MARTIN] And I I'm not trying to brag, but I finished it in 207 days.
[VILE] Very good. That's hard to do, by the way. I have a number of times starting and not quite completing it.
[MARTIN] So there for awhile, I was sort of a self-styled expert walking around. Yeah, it's fascinating when you when you read from cover to cover, and some of the things--like Numbers was a bit of a snoozer…
[VILE] My grandmother would try to read the Bible once every year. But she was so honest, she would always say, “but I skipped over the genealogies.” She just couldn't take it.
[MARTIN] Again, some fascinating things, you know, even talking about David as king, but then you go back to first Samuel, Chapter 8 and Samuel starts going on about well, you want a king. But here's all the here's all the things that are going to happen. Of course, God told Samuel and these sort of things. So, there's a podcast I started listening to called Anarchochristian, and Tolstoy was kind of along this line of stuff. And then complete anarchy, too, that this you know government is only you know to God....
[VILE] One of the most famous writings in American history is sort of ironic. It was Common Sense by Thomas Paine, who turned out to be a very rationalistic, some would have even said atheistic. He actually started, if I remember, as a Methodist minister before he came over to the United States. But in any event, you know, he made a powerful argument from the passage you just cited in Common Sense that God really didn't intend for the Israelites to have a king, and he particularly didn't like the idea of hereditary monarchy or hereditary succession and people who read him and I don't think he originally gave his name, so they would not necessarily know that he was probably utilizing scripture more for argumentation then because he necessarily would have taken it literally, but it was a very powerful argument.
[MARTIN] Then you can make the argument that once the Israelites got a king lot of bad things sort of happen. They were doing pretty good, and then like, we want a king like everybody else then.
[VILE] Yeah, I mean, I think the original model was supposed to be that God was supposed to be their king, right? You know you had close to 400 years rule by judges which were sort of charismatic individual leaders who came, but not necessarily by blood, just sort of by you know the power of their personality and hopefully their spirituality.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and you mentioned Lincoln, and I'm by no means a Lincoln expert, but he seems also to be one of those people who have a kind of difficult to pin down relationship with the Bible and Christianity and religion.
[VILE] Well, true. There was there was a period in his youth where he read a good number of skeptical thinkers, including Paine and Voltaire, and there's a story, and I'm not sure that I've been able to validate it or not, but there's actually a story that one of his friends tore up something that he was going to publish and said no, if this is out there, you'll never be able to be elected.
And one of the fascinating things that I found is if I told you today that we had an American president who had taken scissors to the Bible, we’d go nuts right or a lot of people would say that's impossible. Well. Thomas Jefferson did this, not once, but twice because he was very convinced in, I think the wording was something like he could pick the diamonds out of the dunghill. That he thought in a lot of the New Testament, were the disciples got it wrong, and they misunderstood what Jesus said. So, he was going to take out the miracles and you know just give us a very rational Jesus. I think he had the smarts not to actually publish it in his lifetime. But for many years, the so-called Jefferson Bible would be printed and distributed to every member of Congress every year. And we no longer do that and that's probably the reason. I mean, if you read the Jefferson Bible, the Gospel section ends with the burial of Jesus. There is no account of the resurrection because that would have been a miracle, which he thought was counter to rationalism.
[MARTIN] Yeah, at one time, I owned a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Yeah, basically taking the gospels, cut out all the miracles and you've got these teachings of ethical Jesus.
[VILE] Yeah, and he actually classified himself as a Christian. But then it was qualified, you know, I'm a Christian in the sense that I believe this was the highest ethical system that was ever enunciated, and it's too bad that the disciples all got it wrong.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I don't know if you're aware that Tolstoy did something similar, but he took the four gospels and he turned them into one narrative.
[VILE] Yeah, well and there are a lot of those. There are a lot of you can still buy books on, I forget what they're called, but where they will try to piece chronologically. The story of the four gospels. Harmonization of the gospels. That’s what they're called, and they actually can be very, very useful.
As far as I can tell not all the Gospel writers., well, they didn't always present things in chronological order. Sometimes they did, but sometimes for rhetorical purposes, they would group things together.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and the Tolstoy Bible, I can't think of what it's actually called. I'll look it up. I'll put it in the show notes. But he pushed it together, and he cut out some of the miracles, not all of them.
And it's actually a really good read.
[VILE] And of course, there have been all kinds of you know lives of Jesus. You know, biographies and they take a little bit of Josephus, but mostly they're giving what we know from the four gospels and trying to arrange them in a narative that goes beginning to end yeah.
[MARTIN] So, in writing and researching this book, you mentioned a couple of things you found fascinating, but we kind of what are the maybe the most interesting things that you found or maybe the strangest things?
[VILE] Well, one of the things that I've enjoyed is to look at people who have translated the Bible or come up with their own editions of the Bible. Phyllis Schlafly’s son has issued something called the Conservative Bible, and he takes that he takes out passages that he thinks might have been you know, and the irony is some of these have been there for 400 years, before we even had sort of the notion of liberalism and conservatism, but then you have a Green Bible. You know which you know how we have red letter bibles were all the words of Jesus are in red? Well, they take all the references to the earth in the environment and put them in green, and there's a Judy Talley Ericsson one since I've written this book has a Pro-life Bible, and so she's probably emphasizing that you know pro-life and and other aspects. So that's sort of fun there.
There are a number of people. Noah Webster has an interesting. He tried to rewrite the Bible to take out passages that he thought were a little too risky for sort of Victorian America. And so, things like you wouldn't refer to somebody 's legs. You call them limbs or vice versa. You know, little things like that and sort of tried to elevate the King James. Charles Thompson, who was one of the most influential unknown early Americans. He was secretary of the Continental Congress. He was the first person ever to translate the Bible from the Septuagint, which was the Greek version into English, and there's another woman. Emma Smith, if I remember her name, who was a suffragist and in order to prove that women were the equal of men, she literally translated the Bible like four or five different times from Greek, which she had studied and Hebrew, which she had learned on her own. And apparently, it's a very awkward, not terribly good translation, but it was sort of to prove a point. You know, if a woman can translate the Bible, then she deserve the right to vote, to which I would say Amen.
[MARTIN] Yes, absolutely.
Bible translations are so fascinating it is if you stop and think about the New Testament. The Gospels, so you still had the law. The Holy Scriptures would have been written in Hebrew, but everybody was speaking Aramaic. Originally written in Greek and then translated the Latin and then translated to English, you're like five languages deep in some of this.
[VILE] And the and the Greek was actually, and I'm not an expert on this, but it was Koine Greek, which was your it was sort of the language of the streets as opposed to the language of scholarship. So, we'd probably be a little bit more precise in some cases, if they had done the more scholarly version.
[MARTIN] And a fascinating thing that I just learned is the Greek word for camel and the Greek word for rope is one letter apart.
[VILE] OK, so that would be the rope easier for the rich man to get through a needle than for a rope, but in either case, you know. I take a fairly literalistic view of many scriptures, but clearly when Christ speaks, particularly in the Parables. It's quite clear that he's using metaphor or hyperbole, either image. You know it would be pretty hard to get a rope through the eye of a needle just like it would you know another interpretation I've heard of that passage is that the gate of the city was sometimes called the eye of a needle and they would have to unpack some of the camels. You know, things that you had on top of a camel in order to get through.
[MARTIN] So yeah, and even as a kid I would never quite understand what a camel and needle had to do with each other. But it gets easier to get a rope through, and because you think well, it's a big string you know, and that makes a lot more sense.
[VILE] I've never really worked a lot with translation, but one of the difficulties is do you do if you give a literal meaning to everything? Sometimes it's not as good as if you know that it was a colloquialism. Do you say something similar? Then you know, somebody comes along 50 years later and reads the Greek and says, well this is not what it said. What were you trying to do? Well, they were probably trying to just communicate the gospel.
[MARTIN] And some things are so difficult to translate because it is so cultural. You know, that colloquialism or whatever it is than it really is to try to check into another language. There is no right [way].
[VILE] A lot of people, and I'm among them, use concordances sometimes. And you trace a word all the way through scripture and then you realize well, the word in Hebrew might be different from the word in Greek and even in our own vocabulary. You know, we have you can have a word that means different things, and if I understand that the Hebrew language is particularly difficult because it doesn't have vowels in it.
And so, when you translate, and I think for the most part it doesn't have punctuation, so sometimes you have to figure it out. Sentences vary a lot depending on whether there's a comma there or a period or an exclamation point. So, it's really probably as much an art as it is a science.
[MARTIN] I had a class in undergrad, and it was an American law classes in this kind of big lecture hall classes, and the guy who taught it was very interesting. He was actually a practicing defense attorney and one day talking about the Second Amendment and he said, you know, so much comes down to what that comma in the Second Amendment actually means. And the Supreme Court decision, so basically, I mean, they've recently said that first phrase doesn't mean that much. It doesn't necessarily apply to a militia. It replies to Self Defense or maybe even hunting. Yeah, so it's punctuation is very important.
Actually recently, a few years ago, a court case that came down to a semi colon versus a comma or something to that effect, and I was like see this is this is the point of punctuation.
So, who is the audience for this book? Is it mostly as a textbook or kind of an academic reference guide?
[VILE] It became much more complicated than the books that preceded it. The ones that I've done on the Liberty Bell, the flag, and the one I have coming out in January on the on the national anthem. They're sort of done for high school students and up. I was on a panel with a woman at a Zoom conference in Utah. She is a graduate student in England, and she said her younger sister, who I'm assuming maybe is in the equivalent of their high school, had relied on my flag book for a report or something that she had done so. You know, I'm trying to have a little bit for everyone.
Most of the essays in there are probably 200 to about 1000 words. Occasionally you'll get one that's maybe close to 2000, but I try to you know, I try to make it readable as a point in and of itself. But each one will have cross references and each one also has a bibliography, and typically two to maybe as many as 20 sources, so that if somebody wants to go more in depth, particularly scholars. You know, the kind of thing we would find here through JSTOR ore LEXIS Nexis, it would be available to them.
[MARTIN] I'm assuming you probably didn't have all I mean, there's hundreds and hundreds of entries, you didn't have all of these already in mind...
[VILE] No. And frankly, when I started this project, I had to switch publishers. My first publisher gave me if I remember, like 180,000 words. And I said, well I don't know, and then the more I wrote. It's like. No, I can't do that. So, I went to another publisher and I think I started with him at about maybe 200,000, and it ended up being like 325,000 before it was over.
[MARTIN] What was sort of the core of the book I mean? What did you have in mind when you?
[VILE] Well again, I knew I had some speeches. Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech is a good example. I knew the Lincoln speeches. I knew a fair amount about pilgrims. You have one of the first education laws in the United States was called the Deluder Satan law, and it was the idea was if you taught people to read, they'd be able to read the Bible and they would be able to resist the Deluder Satan.
And then you have a lot of the early the body of liberties. I believe it was, it was in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They had they actually had their laws and they would give scriptural citations, particularly when it involves the death penalty. You know you blasphemed God or you can’t sass your parents? Here's the rule that says, we can punish you, hang you or whatever.
You know, I teach constitutional law, so I've always been interested in the cases involving prayer and Bible reading in school and I'm very interested just to see how modern politicians, well throughout our history, but particularly modern politicians use a Bible.
Let me give you an example. And I think it is in here. Mike Pence, as far as I can tell is a fairly solid evangelical Christian, and he tries to incorporate that in what he says. On the other hand, Pete Buttigieg is also Christian. Of the Episcopalian persuasion, if I recall correctly, and he says Pence is misinterpreting scripture, and that it should be more inclusive. He's making it specifically you know against gays, or whatever, so I think it's an interesting interplay.
And I frankly think that Christians as a group, and maybe Evangelical Christians of whom I've considered, myself one through most of my life. I think sometimes we're a little bit naïve. We think that if somebody you know plays God Bless America or uses the word God or you know pledges allegiance “under God” that that necessarily makes him a Christian and I guess I'm a little bit more “you shall know them by their fruits.”
I'm not saying that everybody who uses the Lord’s name is doing so cynically, but you know, there is a prohibition against using the Lord’s name in vain, and that might just not mean cursing it. It may mean putting it out there as a you're really a godly man and your behavior perhaps doesn't quite live up to that?
[MARTIN] I haven't read the book but I listened to an interview with the author. It’s called Untangling Jesus, and the idea that, especially in conservative American politics, is that Christianity and Christian Church or just so entangled, and they said that that's really not how it should be. You know, that as Christians, we have a have a higher calling, higher purpose and that said you're kind of getting wrapped up in the flag.
[VILE] The kingdom of God is not identical with the kingdom of this world. You know, Saint Augustine used to talk about you know, we were citizens of two kingdoms. You know, an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom, and they don't always sort of influence the other. But they're not identical and there are a lot of scriptural injunctions against idol worship, and idol worship can mean a leader. Sometimes we, you know, and I'm not quite sure how we always choose him, but often it just seems to be their rhetoric seems to line up with sort of our first reaction, and we go along with them, and then we realized you know, maybe this is a Golden Idol year instead of the true gospel.
This was in another interview that I did, but you know, there is this very unusual story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, and some say actually wrestling with God, and I think my view of scripture is almost like that that. You know, there are some clear answers there, and that's helpful, but often, if we go in with whatever preconception. If we think Jesus Christ, was you know, a Laissez Faire capitalist or if we think he was in in a died in the wool Communist, we're probably not going to get the message of the Bible right because we already know what we want and frankly, that's a little of what Jefferson did, right? Jefferson knew that miracles couldn't happen. So, you just take them out, and I think you'd lose a lot. And you know, maybe it's OK. If somebody says well, I really think the Bible means this, and I don't believe it. But at least wrestle with it. You know, don't say it can't believe that because that's not what I think.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and then you get into this, this very messy situation. I read a little bit about how much human meddling has there been in the Bible over the course of thousands of years, not just in translations. But just in you know if you're a here or some king or some ruler in Israel you think wouldn't it be great if there was a commandment from God that said, I get to do this thing or whatever and then you go talk to the people.
[VILE] If that's the case, they were not very successful because the Bible stood in condemnation of most of the kings, but I tend to take, as ancient manuscripts go as far as I can tell, there's about as much substantiation for most biblical manuscripts as there are any of the time. But they do come through human lenses and it shows. I don't want to get into it because I think it's very complicated. But just stay on the issue of creation and evolution. If this original revelation came to Moses. It probably came to a person who had a view of the world, maybe with a dome on the top of it. You know, probably flat and how else would God speak to him if you started telling him about I don't know neutrons or you know, some celestial phenomenon that isn't inventing isn't discovered until 3000 years later. He wouldn't have been able to communicate it to his people, so I think that, you know, I think knowing what the audience is and probably God would have communicated in language that they could have understood.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I've had conversations with people about if you were to bring back, let's say Jefferson, and you could have sort of a man of science and adventure and all this. Well, what would he be most sort of amazed at in modern days. And people say, it has to be a computer. I said, you have no concept and no way to relate back to computer. He would be probably, you know, fascinated by air conditioning and refrigeration. You couldn't talk to somebody 5000 years ago about quarks.
Have you read Kanye West 's presidential platform?
[VILE] You know, I have not.
I thought I I thought you were going to ask me if I had read the Republican platform this year. My understanding is they don't have one, so I thought it was a trick question. I'm still not sure that it isn't but go ahead and tell me about Kanye West’s platform.
[MARTIN] Well, for everyone. I will link to this in the show notes too. It's about 400 words. It's very it's very readable, very easy to understand. It's 10-12 bullet points. Change a couple of words here and there, and I'm down with it completely, but what's fascinating is that for each of each point that he makes, he cites at least one if not several Bible verses to back that up.
[VILE] I suspect that if I can go 5 years and stay alive and an active that probably there will be enough for an update [to my book]. I mean, since I wrote this one of the really fascinating things that happened. And it's wildly differently interpreted but you know the event where the president cleared the streets and walked across Pennsylvania Avenue to hold up a Bible, and you still don't know whose it was. Just a photo op is what opponents would say it was. You know, he said he felt so strongly about desecration of a church that he wanted to say something, you know. God knows. I don't.
[MARTIN] And what's fascinating is we spend so much time trying to say Trump really meant this, really meant that or whoever. And half the time and I don't even know why I did the things I did. I can't figure out why John Vile did those things. You know, giving reasons for other people doing things. It's the easiest thing in the world to do. We're always wrong with it, so it is very difficult.
Kind of switching here, so you're the you're the dean of the Honors College. Tell us a little bit about the Honors College.
[VILE] Absolutely love to do that. I like talk about my books too!
The Honors College is sort of like a college within a college. It's for students if they're coming in as a freshman if they have a 25 ACT and a 3.5 GPA, they’re automatically in the honors college if they want to be. And once you're here semester or more, if they have a 3.25 GPA, then they can also take honors courses. And basically, the Honors College honors courses are similar to those in high school. You take your best students put them with sort of hand-picked professors and smaller classes.
You probably learn more because it's easier to go through material in a smaller class but they're not designed so much to be more difficult as they are simply to be more interactive, and one of the nice things about the Honors College is we have scholarships for both for incoming freshman and for transfer students. The university has a set of guaranteed scholarships, so anyone with a 23 or higher and a 3.5 is eligible from somewhere between $2000 and $5000, depending on whether they get the lower ACT or the 30 or above. But then we have a scholarship for 20 incoming freshman each year, known as the Buchanan Fellows. And they pay full tuition and fees plus $1000.00 a year for books and money for study abroad, and then we have another scholarship for kids that are coming from a Community College with 60 hours and a 3.5 or better, and it pays for in-state students $3,500.00 per semester for four semesters. We take 20 Buchanan students a year and 30 transfer students, and both have brought in some extraordinary students. I hope, if anybody is listening, the key date is December 1st for freshman. Now, if you're coming in as a transfer student that's February 15th, but that means application, ACT scores, transcripts.
[MARTIN] And is so if you meet those criteria that you laid out, it’s kind of automatic that you're in the Honors College or?
[VILE] If you want to be. We don't draft anybody.
[MARTIN] And, I mean, you talked about smaller class sizes, but is there a special kind of honors curriculum or basically students are going through kind of taking the same. Gen. Ed. classes and all that?
[VILE] It's a little bit of both, but we have one class in common for the transfer students. We have several for the Buchanan students. But mostly there are classes that you would have. In general education, there are honor sections of them, so they're smaller sections with other honor students.
Students who want to graduate with honors, typically it's 120 hours to graduate from MTSU. You need 29 of them need to be in honors. And if you if you want the full honors degree here, then you do a thesis in your junior and senior year. And we have about 85 students a year, complete that. They get special recognition to get a nice little medallion and special recognition at graduation.
[MARTIN] And then they ring the bell.
[VILE] We've done a lot of them through zoom this semester, and so I have a little bell there on my desk that I that I ring on their behalf. I tell them if they want to come over later we can ring the bel for them individually.
[MARTIN] And are there honors in the majors classes?
[VILE] There are some more than others. You know, it partly depends on the major, but we do have a mechanism if you're having trouble getting the upper division hours that you would need in your major they can take a regular course and add an assignment to it to make it an H honors option course so pretty much we can accommodate anybody you know, regardless of their major.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and a lot of lot of grad students are over there in the Honors College. I was privileged to meet some and talk to some, and we have an honors college students study lounge here in the library as well.
[VILE] Yeah, the Buchanan Room and as you know Dr. Buchanan was an MTSU graduate who won a Nobel Prize in economics, and so, we really pride ourselves on that. One of the things that we do in Honors, and now it's available for everybody on campus, but we probably get more applicants from the Honors College than elsewhere. We have our own UFO office, which is probably not what it sounds like it's our undergraduate fellowship office. I've been Dean for about 12 years, and I'd say the last 10 of those, I think every year, but we've had from one to three, probably an average of 2 students a year, who've gotten a fellowship through the National Fulbright program to either teach or study abroad, and we've gotten a fair number of critical language scholarships. Goldwater scholarships, which are given to outstanding undergraduates in the natural sciences. We got a Udall winner a year or two ago, which is for environmental issues. Lots of people in the jet program, which is a program for teaching Japanese for I think up to five years. And so, others that we've not always been successful in applying for, but we find our students learn quite a bit just going through the process. Laura Clippard heads set up and she and I and others typically read over their applications and sort of polish them up for them.
And you know, we've had graduates go to Harvard Medical School, Mayo Clinic, Chicago law school, William & Mary, you know, lots of lots of good places.
[MARTIN] And there's also a great lecture series the Honors College does and I had one down on my calendar. I think it was for April. It was you giving a lecture on the Bible and the in the environment.
[VILE] Well, it happened, but it ended up being online. So, I think you could probably still look it up. We do a different topic each semester, and I believe the topic of the whole lecture series was global warming.
Partly as a result of some of the work that I was doing on that book, I looked at what did the Bible say generally about the environment or care for the environment? What were the different positions and of course, you know what the Bible can't tell you or doesn't tell you is how serious global warming is.
That's a prudential judgment that you just have to make on the basis of current facts. But it turns out there if there are a fair number of people who, I guess you get people on both sides, but you have a fair number of people who believe that you know, environmental concerns go back to the creation story in the Garden of Eden. The people had to tend the garden. And if we had to tend that, then maybe we still need to ten the earth as a whole.
[MARTIN] One interesting thing I learned about you. When I first started here, Bonnie Allen, the retired dean took me to one of the honors lecture series you were giving and you said you're the adult Sunday school teacher and also the pastor at the Beech Grove Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
[VILE] I'm an interim and I have been since 2001.
[VILE] I think we're both comfortable without either of us having to make the full commitment there, but it's a little country church mostly with senior citizens, which I'm finding myself increasingly comfortable with and easier to relate to. They’re a very, very kind loving congregation and it doesn't have the feel of a megachurch and that's maybe one of the reasons that I like it. I like being in a church where I know everybody 's name and family and you know their children 's names and that sort of thing so it's been a good experience.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and the first time I heard you speak I said, Yeah. That's the mannerisms and speech patterns of a pastor.
How has that influenced your work as a scholar?
[VILE] Well, I mean, I'm glad we're sort of coming back to this because you asked me what prompted this, and one of the experiences that I had is that I met my wife at an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship meeting. We went to church regularly together as undergraduates. And when I was in graduate school and I can still remember looking for a dissertation topic, and I found one that was fine, but I really didn't have any professors, well I had some that were sort of generally interested in the idea of how does reason relate to revelation, but I don't think I actually had a professor who really knew these are the people in American political thought that you should be looking at. If I knew John Witherspoon. It was only as a name, and you know, here was somebody who was president of what is today Princeton University, a great scholar of the day, the only pastor who signed the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Rush, who I’ve since written a book about. A great Philadelphia Doctor and philosopher.
I really think if someone were in graduate school today in history, or theology or political science and they look through this book, I think they would get lots of ideas as to something that they’d be interested in. I have, maybe a two-page entry on John Witherspoon. Somebody could look at that and say, yeah, I'm really interested in this speech that he gave or you know, this book that he wrote. So, I'm hoping that it will stimulate.
My primary training other than constitutional law was political theory, and we often think of political theory simply as sort of a secular enterprise. But, you know, from Saint Augustine forward and actually there have been some great books. So, there’s a great book on first and second Samuel arguing that they are much more political than we've ever understood. There are great studies of Moses and the Exodus and you know what their implications are for theology, and I think if I could have found the source like this, it might have it might have pointed me in a little bit in a direction of something that I might have enjoyed a little bit more than the one that I did.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and I think that's one of the key things is for anybody listening. You know, what would you like to have had at that time your life? Be that person or create that thing.
And you know, and politics and religion, especially in America and I mean, I don't know about other countries, but we do have this, this separation of church and state which, but yet Christianity is just so tightly coupled with western civilization that it's sort of impossible to say that remove politics from American history in American religion.
[VILE] Right, and people I mean, if you think about it some of the greatest reform movements in America have been--yes, some of them are motivated by sort of all men are created equal statements in the Declaration of Independence--but in all due deference to Mr. Jefferson, whose university I attended and whom I admire greatly, he didn't free his own slaves.
Some of them were fanatics. I would say people like John Brown, but you had other people who seriously read the Exodus account and said, this isn't right, particularly when it comes to breaking up families. You know, this is this is not something that the Bible would sanction, and you know, the same is true of the civil rights movement. Where would we have been without Dr. King, and there were many people, many of the abolitionists.
And again, you have different streams that are feeding in and they often converge. I can't remember if I have an entry on there in the Declaration of Independence or not, but there are certainly some biblical sentiments in the Declaration of Independence, even you know when they don't quote Scripture per se.
[MARTIN] Yeah, there's a Catholic movement. It was really big and still around today, but it's very big during the labor movement and did a lot to--
[VILE] Dorothy Day.
[MARTIN] Yes and did a about child labor and you know like 40-hour work week and a lot of other stuff so.
So I have read, I think maybe one or two biographies of Jefferson, and I read a biography of John Adams. I found the biography of John Adams to be very boring, mostly because John Adams was just kind of a boring person, I mean.
[VILE] Don't tell that to it to Abigail.
[MARTIN] I mean, he was a churchgoing Christian, is he was sort of a very upstanding citizen and he just kind of led a right and proper upstanding life, and then you look at someone, like Jefferson, who writes the Declaration of Independence, own slaves, talks about this agrarian society, was terrible farmer, a really good industrialist who made nails and bricks and sold them for a profit, and so I often think that’s kind of what makes a good subject for studying history. Those contradictions like that, and how do you actually square them?
[VILE] Not completely disagreeing with you here, but I think there's a general consensus. We talked earlier, about some what we'd call Bible-believing Christians. Probably not too many atheists on any side there, but, actually Jefferson and Adams come both come pretty close in their theology, which was pretty much deist. Adams had I think more of a churchgoing background and a lot of people think that there's sort of a residual puritanism that comes through in Adams, even maybe when he doesn't know it. And that's where religion shapes culture, and so it is often hard.
We clearly don't want a society where everybody said we have to all follow the Koran or say the set of laws were going to enact will come from somebody reading Deuteronomy or Exodus. We're going to enact all of these, but we also probably wouldn't want a society where there were not people who were at least motivated by religious ideals and religious principles.
[MARTIN] And again, I’ve talked to people who want to talk about Christians in general, I'm like, well when you say that you're talking about your Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians and you're talking about Roman Catholics and 7th Day Adventists and...
[VILE] Also differences between African American and white Christians, even within the same denomination is often very different so.
[MARTIN] Yeah, so it's so hard to pin down and get this whole sort of uber thing about you know Christianity or whatever, but…
[VILE] You’re making actually a good point about the topic of the book. I love Billy Graham and I think he was a great speaker. He kept things simple. I think in a good way. But I have seen articles. You know, one of his pet lines was “the Bible says” an I've seen articles in evangelical journals. Let's say maybe he shouldn't say it that way because parts of the Bible suggests sometimes there are some things that are pretty clear and you want to be clear about those, but there are other passages scripture that's the reason we have so many denominations, presumably is not because all but one group are rebelling against God, but we read things differently.
You know, there's a certain humility, I think. The creation accounts suggest that, you know, we live in a fallen world and that we can reason ourselves into almost anything, particularly if it benefits us.
[MARTIN] And some things in the Bible are very clear that you're not supposed to do, but then there are a lot of things that are open for interpretation. I always said interpretation tells me a lot more about the interpreter than it does about the text, and so my interpretation can be different from yours, but people have fought wars over these interpretations.
Yeah, you know back in the summer, I went up to the Smokies and went to Cades Cove and the small community had cracked me up. There were three churches, and this was a small community and one of them was a Primitive Baptist church and it's the first time I heard that, so I'm going to look at what this yeah, this term means it was pretty interesting about Primative Baptists and then I discovered Primitive Baptist Universalists and...
[VILE] That's that sounds very bizarre.
[MARTIN] So they are often called No Hellers, and so universalism is not unique to Primitive Baptist. But the idea that there is no hell that either everybody goes to hell for a certain period of time for punishment and then they go on…
[MARTIN] Yeah, then they all go into heaven. Or Primitive Baptist Universalists believe sort of this is how
life is, and then we're all going to go to heaven.
[VILE] You're reminding me, I'm actually Baptist, although I preach at a Presbyterian Church, but I believe it was in Texas when we passed the First Baptist Church of Corinth, and I said, you know this can’t end well. Sure enough, about three blocks away was the Second Baptist Church in Corinth. You know, we're known for disagreeing even among ourselves.
[MARTIN] Yeah, where I used to live here in Murfreesboro, you went down this way, and I clocked it, it was two miles from red light to red light. There were four churches. I think three were Baptist and one was Assembly of God, and I thought couldn't you all just get together?
[VILE] You know, it's a little bit like schools, the local school concept that there are some advantages. There are some mega churches that seem to get it, but sometimes it's easier for people to have one right there in their community.
[MARTIN] These discussions, I have with people... You, know religion is about more than just sort of the ultimate destiny of your soul. It provides a lot of guidance for how do you live your life, but it also creates a community, and it is an important part of a community. There are folks out there that argue that this sort of decline in church going…
[VILE] Sure, like the Putnam thesis on bowling alone. And I have great respect for that argument that there are intermediate--it's not just this powerful state in the individual--there are all kinds of intermediate institutions, and they include schools and churches and social clubs and even bowling links. I guess, most of us. You know, there's an advantage. I think one of the problems we have right now is, especially in the last 20 years, we’ve seen a greater ideological distance between both parties, and I'm sure that people on both sides are going to be shocked after tomorrow's election.
Because some are going to say, well, I you know, I can't understand how Biden won, everybody that I know was a Trump supporter, and there are going to be Biden people who are going to say you know if Trump wins. They're going to say, well, I don't know. Anybody who favored Trump, and we get in sort of our own you know niches and that should be a place in church where you can come together.
I always tell people and I'm intensely interested in politics and I follow it closely, but I don't know anybody whose friendship I would give up on the basis of just their political beliefs. It's just not worth it.
[MARTIN] Now I have the same thing, and in fact, I am a big fan of Brené Brown, and she was she was doing some webinars and taking questions, and somebody wrote in a question basically like what do you do with friends who don't share your political beliefs or something to that effect, and her answer was kind of like well, you gotta kick them out of your life. I like Brené Brown, but my thought was like well, what made you friends with this person in the first place? You know, I mean, if they're putting swastikas up on the wall and that's one thing you know, but the fact that you might differ over parties...
[VILE] I have, not in my immediate family, but my extended family, I have people who are friending and unfriending themselves on the basis of it. You know a tweet on politics is like it's not worth it, you know. And rarely do they convince one because they don't listen to one another, you know? They're not talking to each other, they're talking at each other. And you know, if you follow biblical principles… You know the fruits of the spirit. You know, Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness. That doesn't mean you can't have political beliefs, but whatever your political beliefs are, you want to deal with them in the in with these kind of character traits.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and this sort of meme-ification of politics and society as a whole that I'm going to take this very complex idea and narrow down to just this picture with a funny caption, which sometimes make me laugh. Whether I agree with it or not, but this is sort of how we've reduced what are very complex issues and ideas, and then we were like, it just becomes about getting the burn on the other person, right?
[VILE] And again that's why I so like Lincoln. And you know, he wasn't perfect either. But for somebody who could understand these people believe as passionately in what they believe as I do. And I believe they're wrong, and they believe I'm wrong, but you know, God's going to have to sort out the difference because we can't.
[MARTIN] Yeah, and I just lost my train of thought...
[VILE] Join the club.
[MARTIN] One thing I thought of a little earlier, I don't know if you've ever read it, Mark Twain has an essay on prayer for war.
[VILE] Yes! You know, the two books, and if any publishers are listening, I still don't have... I have an oral contract for a book on prayer in America, which has never been consummated, I guess, and I have another on the cross in American political life. Neither of which is yet published but one of the favorite essays that I have in the book on prayer is exactly this story. And I can't… I was trying to decide earlier today. I don't think he specifies the war. But I think he probably wrote it, about the time of the Spanish-American War, and there's another letter in that he initially favored freeing Cuba. But then when we put our talons, as he says, on the Philippines, he turned against it.
But the one on prayer, basically, it's a short story about a preacher. They are all praying that their boys will come home and that would be a great victory, and we wipe out the enemy. And this guy says do you realize what you're praying for? You're asking that on the other side that there be windows and their crops be destroyed and that people’s children are going to starve. And you know, he's usually one of those who is not regarded as very religious at all, but he actually has some fairly deep religious insights in that particular passage.
[MARTIN] Yeah, my mother will say, having lived in Florida, coming from Florida and lived a little while in Louisiana, you know being in the path of the hurricane. I pray that that hurricane wouldn't hit where you live, but it's going to hit some other people. Some other sons and cause damage so yeah, prayer is pretty fascinating.
[VILE] It is, and again the good thing is, you know, if you believe in God, you believe he understands these things and hopefully, he surely understands that you're praying more for the safety of your child than for the destruction of someone else.
Actually, there there's a set of prayers, called Imprecatory and I think I'm pronouncing it right, prayers that are particularly found in the book of Psalms, where David will say take my enemies and destroy them utterly. And I wouldn't want to have a steady diet of them, but we were told we talked earlier, about wrestling with God, and I think he's saying what we think, and we probably often pray that way. And maybe you know, we probably should pray in a more enlightened fashion. But at least, it's sort of like, sometimes couples say things to one another they shouldn't say, but that may be better than a couple that just you know freezes up every time and it doesn't tell the other what they’re really thinking, So I think there's a certain spiritual dimension of getting a job, saying God, I don't understand. Why is this happening to me, you know? Why are you doing this? God 's ways are greater than ours and we need to accept them.
[MARTIN] The whole like won't even let me make a case for you and let me defend myself but sort of thing. If you’re familiar with Martyn Lloyd Jones, he died in 1980, but was a British minister but actually was Welsh. He taught or preached for a long time in England.
[VILE] OK, the Welsh had some great evangelists. Wales and Scotland both.
[MARTIN] Yeah, he's fascinating. Started off as his life as a medical doctor and then felt he was called to go preach, and I'm listening to this podcast, he did about 60 sermons on Sermon on the Mount, so somebody is actually reading these, but just he was talking about the, you know, the ask and you shall receive, and he's like, that doesn't mean you just kind of pray for a new Ferrari...
[VILE] Oh lord, won't you buy me a color TV, right? Or a Mercedes-Benz.
[MARTIN] It actually kind of relates back to all of these things that Jesus was talking about and asking for guidance to be able to live your life this way. It goes back to, he'll talk a lot about picking out this one verse and you think it means all these things. But when you put it in context of this whole entire concept or idea. It actually it changes what this all means.
[VILE] I think every Christian prayer ends, or it should contain at least implicitly like not my will but thine be done, I mean. And the best example of that is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, clearly anticipating that is going to be crucified, in saying if it's your will, may this cup pass from me, but not why. You know, if God didn't condescend to save his own son from crucifixion, then we're going to go through some things.
You know, this book isn't for or against anybody other than trying to come up with a reasonable understanding of spiritual understanding as I can, but I have real concerns about a lot of what's generally called the prosperity gospel. And you know, there are some elements in the Bible that suggests that you know clean living sort of pays off. We talk about honesty being the best policy, and it is, but you should be honest, even if if it brings things that are bad for you.
We certainly know if you take the position that everybody who's sick must have done something wrong. That's clearly not Biblical. And you know, Jesus was not a billionaire or millionaire, so wealth doesn't necessarily come with being a Christian, even to say that a Christian can't be wealthy, but one needs to be very careful. If the only blessings in life we understand are material blessings, we probably miss 90% of what the Bible is about.
[MARTIN] It's not that being wealthy is a bad thing. It's 1) what you did to get the wealth and 2) what you do with it.
[VILE] And here, I'm guilty. I love my things. But, you know, things can dominate your life and the most important things in your life are things then you need a different perspective, and that's something that the Bible certainly certainly tells us.
[MARTIN] Yeah, absolutely.
Well, one of the questions we'd like to ask everybody comes on this podcast is what have libraries meant to you in your life and careers.
[VILE] I love libraries and I think you mentioned it, but I had to add a whole wing to my house, and I can hardly walk through it now, and partly, it's my own fault. Every time I write a book, I probably buy another 100 to 200 books just in the process of doing that.
If any real estate agents are listening. I am looking for a library with the house attached. No, I really mean it. That's what I need, but I love libraries. You know, when I started I started at a relatively small state school. We were going through terrible budget times. We actually had three years, if I remember, in a row where the library got not a single new book, and I would drive over to LSU, usually the law library and print out 500 or 1000 pages and come back. And you know, I shouldn't tell this but there are days here where I almost print that much in a day from just JSTOR and Lexis Nexis, and some of the great indicies that we have here.
I really think that I could not do the writing that I'm doing now at my former institution, and I don't think I could do it without particularly those two. You know, Lexis Nexis, for those who don't know is basically a legal guide online and then the JSTOR is Journal storage and, literally, I have access to just about as many manuscripts as I would have if I were at Harvard and Yale, and what I don't have, you guys have a fairly prompt interlibrary loan.
And fortunately, I have a very forgiving and understanding wife, who, if I need something sooner than that, she lets me buy it from Amazon. Yesterday, there was a $55 book that I had delivered at my doorstep, and I already have about 30 new entries on the American Eagle, which is a book that I'm just starting working on.
[MARTIN] I think you're also a fan of WestLaw.
And I say that so our libraries move like many libraries to sort of electronic-preferred. John is not a fan of this, and bugs us every once in a while. He does threaten to sort of sick his wife on me because of his book bills, but Linda is a lovely lady, and so I always enjoy is.
[VILE] Well and I will say I have noticed in the past couple years that JSTOR is now digitizing some books, and the only thing I dislike about an ebook is if I can't print it, then I don't have page numbers. I need the page number for citations because you know want people to be able to look up what I've done. So that is that seems to be improving.
[MARTIN] Yeah, a lot of the books now have page numbers.
[VILE] You know, it's much better if you can say page 86, rather than you know somewhere in chapter three. There's other ways right sections and all that sort of stuff, but it's much easier to find with the page number. My other pet peeve, by the way, and if I'm ever ruler the universe, we're going to penalize severely anyone who publishes a scholarly book without an index. That drives me nuts.
And in fact, this book yesterday. Wonderful book, but it doesn't have an index, and it's like oh my goodness, not again.
[MARTIN] You know, when I was an undergrad, I was to taught--even actually going back into as a high school senior--kind of taught doing research, you find a book that you think looks good, you open the index and you look for the main areas you're looking for, and you see where it's listed. So yeah, without an index
[VILE] Often I find this on Amazon.com, which is next to my wife as my best friend, but a lot of times they will give you access. You know, they'll give you a little preview of the book, and often they'll go to the index and I can often tell if I'm looking researching the American Eagle and there's nothing on the eagle in the index, chances are that there probably wasn't anything significant in the book either, so that does help.
[MARTIN] Well, John it's been a pleasure as always talking to you. Always a very interesting conversation. Any sort of last words of wisdom that you want to send us out on well?
[VILE] I'm going to end where the last interview I did started. My parents had this little habit that I love, but sort of infuriated me, too. They would, if they went to a funeral wedding or whatever occasion they would always write their names and then they put a citation to a Bible verse, but they rarely wrote it out. My mother has one that she constantly quotes to me which is Ecclesiastes 12:12, and it says that the making of books. There is no end and much study is weariness of the flood. So, I thought well, that's good. And sure enough, the last person who interviewed me, he went back and looked it up, he says. Why did you choose that?
I approached the Bible very seriously. On the other hand, I like the notion of getting people engaged with the Bible, even if it sometimes takes humor or something that may seem a little off the beaten track to do it.
[MARTIN] Great and the book is Bible in American Law and Politics, and there’ll be a link to it in the show notes. Thank you very much, John.
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