Nov 212014
 
 November 21, 2014

It’s common knowledge—at least at Duke—that as the semester ends, academic work picks up, and students move into isolation and try to hold out for a) Thanksgiving, that harbinger of ‘the end,’ and, in quick succession, b) winter break, that solidification of one semester’s end and a few weeks to pretend that the next one won’t begin. Spoiler: it does, eventually.

Working on the flip side—no longer as a student, but now as a staffer who works in oftentimes student-oriented university programming—it’s common knowledge that instead of trying to reform student behavior or their workload or both, we try to avoid planning too many large-scale events during the end of the semester. This past week, however, a few large-scale events presented in some form by Kenan drew admirably good-sized amounts of students and publics alike. It’s heartening to witness people attend events out of sheer interest, and even more so to witness people attend events out of an apparent interest in coming together against a backdrop of intense isolation. Because especially in these days of early darkness and chapped lips, coupled with the ambiguous sense of things ending and maybe? maybe not? beginning again, it’s easy to feel alone.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A recap of some events this past week that energized my late-fall blues:

Friday, November 14: Opening of the Nannerl O. Keohane and Frank Hawkins Kenan Gallery. Several students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered for the opening reception and remarks. The gallery will house both a permanent collection—chock-full of outstanding visual art by local artists, including CDS faculty member and photographer M.J. Sharp, and past What is Good Art winners—and a rotating collection, now displaying Kenan’s Good Question series. You can see photos from the event here.

Saturday-Sunday, November 15-16: Hack Duke: Code for Good. Team Kenan co-sponsored the third-ever Hack Duke event, which brought together teams of students to huddle together over the course of two days—largely sans-sleep—and engineer projects exploring the connection between technology and social good. The teams organized around four tracks: Inequality, Energy and the Environment, Education, and Health and Wellness. See the students in action here, and learn more about the event and its teams on the Hack Duke website.

Tuesday, November 18: “The Sacredness of the Secular and the Secularity of the Sacred: Re-imagining the Role of Religions in Public Life.” Renowed philosopher Charles Taylor participated in a public interview with KIE Senior Fellow Luke Bretherton in the Goodson Chapel at the Divinity School. The Chapel—a formidable space fit for a formidable guest—was packed full, mostly with Divinity School students. Taylor and Bretherton talked about the changing nature of faith communities, the convergence of political issues and religion in the public sphere, and the line between beneficent and misanthropic action in modern institutions (among other topics). We sent some live-tweets out during the event (if you want to backtrack to this Tuesday’s Twitter timeline), and there will be a video of the talk available soon through Kenan’s website.

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20: “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel (11/19), and discussion (11/20) with Adrienne Keene on “Social Media, Activism, and Mascots.” The Forum for Scholars and Publics and Team Kenan teamed up to present a series exploring Native American fashion and identity. The fashion show and panel on Wednesday evening displayed apparel and jewelry from Native American designers and brought together Adrienne Keene, postdoctoral fellow at Brown and author of the blog Native Appropriations; Jessica Metcalfe, author of the Beyond Buckskin blog & boutique; Susan Scafidi, Fordham Law professor and and founder of the Fashion Law Institute; and Shayne Watson, fashion designer (Shayne Watson Designs). Keene returned the next day to the Forum for Scholars and Publics for an invigorating lunch discussion on recent mascot appropriation controversies. There were two excellent student-authored pieces reflecting and reporting on the series of events: one from Recess in the Duke Chronicle, and one from Duke Today.

—MD

Nov 142014
 
 November 14, 2014

Where does this piece start? Where does the conversation begin?

Say it begins in a room on West Campus, at the bottom of a building, beneath exposed orange pipes. Gathered around a table, in the same place where last week Eula Biss sat, are two South African writers—one a librettist and composer, the other a journalist and blogger. Gathered around them is a mix of people: they are racially diverse, they come from Durham, they come from Duke, they come from both. They come into the city, and into this campus, and into this room, at different points in time. Some come into the room after the discussion starts. Some say that they have just moved to the city from Brooklyn, and from elsewhere. The librettist and journalist have moved to Durham for just a month, to share their stories with people like the ones who’ve come here to share theirs today.

Neo Muyanga and Khadija Patel are the inaugural recipients of the WiSER-Duke Visiting Writing Fellowship. The new cross-institutional program, between Johannesburg (the University of the Witwatersrand) and Durham (Duke), is designed to grant accomplished non-academic writers the chance to work within academic spaces. I first became interested in the program because I read that one of my former professors, Sarah Nuttall, would be helping to facilitate the exchange. Then I began reading about the two fellows’ work—about Muyanga’s compositions and co-founding of the Pan African Space Station, and about Patel’s journalism for South Africa’s Daily Maverick and her current book project on Mayfair, a suburb of Johannesburg. Enthralled by what I now knew, I expected to sit, further enthralled, as the two talked about what they do. There would be probing but mild-mannered questions from the audience about their work, and we would eat nice food and leave feeling happy with ourselves.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album. In her first book, The Balloonists, Eula Biss quotes her back: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ writes Joan Didion, with a certain skepticism. We also live by the stories we tell.” I like how Biss, with the same skepticism, re-fashions Didion’s words in order to say something not only about our tendency, as humans, to narrativize in order to make meaning. Biss seems to be suggesting that we’re bound by these stories, in our action and inaction. And I’d go further: that which binds us in turn renders us, and our stories, necessarily incomplete.

I like the different angles Didion’s and Biss’s words create. I felt these angles take shape during the event at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The conversation with Muyanga and Patel was formally structured around the term “black money”—referring to the rise of the black middle class in Johannesburg but also, I found out, to the trajectory of the black middle class in Durham. The conversation hinged on the stories its participants were willing to tell, about how race, urban development, and economic power interlock in Durham. We think there’s a connection here, the South Africans said. I’ll give you my context if you give me yours.

The first response: this conversation should begin elsewhere—downtown, outside the academy, in a black church, or library, or other community space. This sentiment—that the conversation is necessarily incomplete—is one I don’t often hear voiced so plainly during on-campus discussions about Duke and Durham. I appreciated it, as much as I appreciate how necessary it is to hold these types of conversations on campus. The comment gave the event texture, and gave spirit to the comments and questions that followed, things that piggy-backed off each other, like: who do cities belong to, and how does that ‘who’ factor into how cities are designed? If cities from Durham to Brooklyn to Johannesburg are modeling themselves into a universal currency of artisanal hipness, who’s able to ‘play’ in these spheres, and who’s left out? When we imagine the cities—and realities—of the future, do we envision the oppressed rising to extreme wealth? Do we want the realities we live with now?

Muyanga and Patel responded back, fashioning the audience comments into reflections on their experiences of Johannesburg. I caught Muyanga afterward and brought up my research project in Dublin, how I’d been investigating the closure of an arts space in the city center. My story didn’t really have a point; it served as a sort of proof that I’d studied the types of things we all spent an hour talking about. I realize now that being in that room and sharing something about living in Durham would have been enough. I have lived in this particular city for almost six years now. I know my knowledge is incomplete, but that gives me fuel—as does sitting in a room on West Campus, sitting alongside others, and placing ‘our’ cities in conversation.

—MD

Nov 022014
 
 November 2, 2014

Remember the “Pocahotness” frat party email back in December of 2011? I do. Not because I received it while a student at Duke, but because I saw Nicole Daniels’s Chronicle editorial, replete with the predictable slew of inflammatory comments, the next day. The party in question, she explains, was held by the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity; its theme, which Daniels’s friend “nonchalantly texted her,” was “Pilgrims and Indians.” Daniels goes on to say how she found the theme appalling in its racial insensitivity but decided to go nonetheless, in order to evaluate the event herself. She places herself among her peers, astonished at their willing participation in the theme. She closes with a collective moral indictment: “Everyone who attended this party should feel ashamed. We are students at a prestigious university, and we should know better.”

Image from the "Appropriate? Or Appropriation" event.

Image from the “Appropriate? Or Appropriation” event.

It’s roughly Halloween as I write this, which made me mis-remember the piece, and the party, as a Halloween event. It was not. It was a pre-Thanksgiving shindig, “intended to celebrate Thanksgiving,” as the Pi Kappa Phi apology letter stated. While I’m not someone who moved through Duke tending to conceive of holidays like Thanksgiving as cause for a rager, I acknowledge that there are, plausibly, student groups that did. And I don’t have a moral indictment for that urge, so long as that urge is pursued conscientiously—and, in the case of this party, I believe it was not. The fraternity’s response letter said as much. The letter is actually remarkable in its defenselessness; the brothers acknowledge that the party offended, and they apologize for that offense. They even went a step further, organizing an event called “Culture Clash,” co-hosted by Pi Kapp and the Native American Student Association. I didn’t attend, but I’m curious about how that went.

I’m curious, especially in these days surrounding and following Halloween, about how we behave on days surrounding and following holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. There are obvious performative differences between the two: one is a one-off involving costumes, transforming into someone else—or at least the outward appearance of someone else—for a night; the other brings friends and family together for gratitude and a shared meal. I say “performative” to call attention to our actions within the 24 hours (and then some) during which we’re called to celebrate. History is complicated; sustaining meaningful dialogue about the ethics of holiday behavior during said holiday (or party) gets in the way of action, especially action involving costume and debauchery. Thus, perhaps, our tendency to do stupid things like throw a party with a racist (or sexist, classist, heterosexist, etc.) theme. Talking about the big stuff is hard. Why not just barely dip into it, with a hastily thrown-together costume, in the name of fun?

There are so many articles and essays that treat the question of “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” (I’m borrowing this phrasing from an upcoming event hosted by Team Kenan and the Forum for Scholars and Publics). One I read recently is from the Walker Art Center’s teen-oriented blog. On dress-up holidays like Halloween, Mason Santos writes, “we get caught up in our own freedom, which unfortunately creates the belief that we are entitled to do what we want…‘I can wear what I want,’ and, ‘I can choose to represent another culture the way I want’ are often phrases that come up when a person is trying to defend their choice of wearing an offensive costume. Rather than thinking about another person’s right to feeling comfortable in their community, we think about our own right to do what we desire.”

Following this line, holidays like Halloween suddenly seem less communal and more liminal. We walk around as half-selves, Picasso-painting-faced, one limb invoking ‘normal’ us, the other invoking Andy Warhol, or a zombie, or Nicki Minaj, or “Pocahotness.” Halloween makes people gravitate together, creating an implausible collection of characters, real and imagined, from different time periods, social spaces, and communities. The oddity of this shared space becomes a given, which makes it difficult to interrogate why we do it in the first place—and thus even more difficult to interrogate the perceived ease of opting into others’ realities via a one-night costume.

In this way I appreciate the “Culture Clash” event, even if I didn’t go, and I appreciate the upcoming “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel. I appreciate, primarily, that these events exist, and that they exist in order to give space to party participants—like me, like you—to appear, sans-costumery, and think about the fictions we adopt on a daily basis. I appreciate that these events exist to propose that these fictions, while sustainable for some, are not sustainable, but rather demeaning and detrimental, for others. I appreciate that this is uncomfortable, even scary, to reckon with. ‘Tis the season for Halloween horror, right?

—MD

Oct 172014
 
 October 17, 2014

Eula Biss dedicates her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays to “[her] baby, who doesn’t have a name yet”; she dedicates 2014’s On Immunity: An Inoculation to “other mothers, with gratitude to mine.”  Here I mean to draw attention to an idea that we all already know: that dedications are acknowledgments of the other, before the book—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whathaveyou—runs it course. They read like declarations of being for, and that implies something quite meaningful, I think: that one person’s labor and artistry can exist for others, and thus that this work exists in a continuum with life, with other people.On Immunity

“There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.” This is Biss writing early in On Immunity about herd immunity, which essentially equates to the vaccination of a majority in protection of a minority—“the minority of the population that is particularly vulnerable to a given disease.” In all the press about Biss’s book—just Google “Eula Biss On Immunity”— there’s much said about how the book originated from Biss’s own pregnancy and deciding whether or not to immunize her son. This is also, often, how I begin to relate the “story” of On Immunity to friends and family.

But there is something deeper at work in Biss’s narrative, which she uses to unravel the cultural history of immunity through her own experiences and through the words of pediatricians, disease scientists, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson (among others). Biss writes with a singular persistence from, at, around, and through her status as a well-educated, financially stable white woman and mother. “People like me” isn’t a droll invocation of empathy, of generalization; it’s Biss’s extreme precision in placing herself, and those who share her demographic characteristics, on a continuum with those who do not. It’s not even so much a placing as it is a recognizing, and abiding-by: we are human, we all contain sickness and health, we share airplanes and blood drive queues. One of my favorite passages of Biss’s book takes place in one of these queues; Biss is giving blood “to repay the loan [she] was given,” upon her giving birth, “by some other anonymous donor.” She writes:

“I try to imagine that donor now as I look at the people in the chairs across from me—a muscular man studying flash cards and a middle-aged woman reading a novel and a man in a business suit looking at his phone. They are the same people I might see waiting for the train, but here they are bathed in an aura of altruism.”

It may be that circumstances like giving blood—or receiving yearly vaccinations— illuminate why we do so in the first place. We give, and receive, in order to become part of a majority in protection of a minority, and how conveniently visceral this experience is:

“When the needles are inserted into the people across from me, I notice each of their faces twist, for just an instant, into a grimace. I dread giving blood, and because I have been sitting here imagining these others are more willing to give than myself, it is surprising to see this look flash across their faces. As the nurse pushes the needles into my arm, I feel my face make the same expression. I, too, dislike it.”

I think, here, about the Terence quotation, which was brought up at the “Apartness” poetry event last week: I am human: nothing human is alien to me. I think, as a writer, about the commonly held notion that writing is birthed from alienation, from a need to reconcile the self with that which feels un-self-like. I think of a recent tweet from a conference on women writers in New York, in which The Empathy Exams author Leslie Jamison is quoted as saying, “All writing is about empathy.”

These may feel like grand-gesture ideas; even, perhaps, like didactic throughlines. Besides, my body is separate from your body, and I am too busy trying to figure out how to avoid your cough so that you do not infect me.

Yet we play host for weakened disease so that we may not catch it in full; we give blood, literally indebted to those who did the same for us. Eula Biss: “Our bodies are not war machines that attack everything foreign and unfamiliar…but gardens where, under the right conditions, we live in balance with many other organisms. In the garden of the body, we look inward and find not self, but other.”

Next month, Eula Biss visits Duke as part of the inaugural Kenan-Center for Documentary Studies Visiting Writers Series in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art. In the spring, Leslie Jamison visits.

As it happens, Jamison has that same Terence quotation tattooed across her arm. She wrote a short piece about it in The New York Times. “It hurt just enough to make me feel like something was happening,” she says about the tattooing process. “There was a sense of deserving—that I’d earned this by hurting for it. It was an old logic I hadn’t felt in a while: Pain justifies ownership.” Perhaps, also, it reinstates collectivity; it brings us into one body; it molds our faces into the same contorted expressions; it makes us visible to one another as we board the trains together.

—MD

Oct 102014
 
 October 10, 2014

On Wednesday, sophomore Lara Haft convened the Coffeehouse and asked all of us to turn off our normal audience-participation mode (read: quiet, no thumbs tapping on screens, no murmurs to disturb the performers). Disturbance, she explained, should be the norm for this event. She reminded us—or, explained—that this was a poetry slam, and we—slouched and standing and sipping nice drinks—would need to give to the performers so that they could give back. “So, that means snapping,” Haft said, demonstrating, “and if you like what they’re saying, if it speaks to you, say mmmm!”

photo-6

Senior Destiny Hemphill performs at “Apartness: Race, Gender, and the Ethics of Storytelling” this past Wednesday.

And mmmms were said. We gave so that they could give back. The evening—under the heady title “Apartness: Poetry, Race, and the Ethics of Storytelling”—began with a slew of diverse slam poets from Duke and Durham and everywhere in between. There was a high-schooler who spoke with elegant immediacy about her race and family history; there was G Yamazawa, a Durham native and the 2014 National Poetry Slam Winner. He performed poems about identity and growing up as a North Carolina-born Japanese-American (“Make some noise if you grew up in an immigrant household!”). His language drifted in and out of conversational Japanese; his parents and his grandmother were in the crowd, laughing in response to G’s family jokes.

I’d attended spoken word events before, but perhaps never listened as closely. I was struck by how all the poems performed on Wednesday spoke so distinctly to where each of the performers comes from: their families, their ethnicities, their histories. Each piece was inextricable from its speaker; each piece was unapologetic presence. Collectively, they felt like origin stories unfurled in real time. Lara, who spent her summer as a Kenan Summer Fellow conducting oral histories with woman veterans of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements in Birmingham, Alabama and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively, shared a poem about what it felt like to be a “wannabe poet with a research grant.” I edited Lara’s letters home over the summer but hadn’t met her in person until this week. Through her letters, I had one idea of her story and how she came into this particular research project. I watched (and edited) as she moved through different communities and physical geographies, trying to reconcile her outsiderness—her apartness—in each one. In her powerful final piece, she writes about her journal from the summer, which was unexpectedly destroyed:

I flipped gingerly through the soggy pages, taking stock of everything I’d written. Since I’d started the notebook, at the beginning of the summer, I’d filled 157 pages. There are doodles, to-do lists, notes scribbled during my interviews. There’s the first version of these blog posts, notes to self, drafted poems about parking lots, single mothers, and mince-meat pies. There’s Eileen’s kitchen table, where she shows me newspaper clippings and I give her computer lessons. There’s the scent of frying samosas in Davinia’s kitchen, where her stories of anti-apartheid marches blend with the sound of bubbling oil.

I realize it’s not a moral or perfect phrasing I need for my poems, but these flickering, precarious images. It’s these moments, suspended in ink, over which I feel like a guardian. There’s a certain ink-blotness of time, a blurring that seeps in from the edges. Decades leak like open water bottles, memories fade to pinks and oranges. Stories of the past warp and whither, from time or misspellings or the solubility of ink.

Reading something on paper and hearing it in person are never the same, right? Each form gives a different effect; each encounter with the material produces a different response. During the panel that followed the performances, Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke) and Randall Kenan (UNC), along with G Yamazawa, talked about the preservation and passage of stories from their different disciplinary perspectives. They talked about what their work aims to do; as a historian, Lentz-Smith explained, she “pushes people to inhabit,” whereas a poet might “push people to see.” All storytellers, they agreed that the ethics of storytelling are endlessly complicated, but that there is worth, after all, in the telling. The worth circles back to the ethical responsibility of the teller. It’s about “making your choices visible,” Lentz-Smith said. Coming together that evening and listening to each others’ stories felt like an exercise in visibility—an acknowledgement of apartness, but a movement, if even for a few hours’ time, toward togetherness.

—MD

Oct 032014
 
 October 3, 2014

I’ve been meaning to update you all on the documentary project I’ve been working on since June. As I wrote back in the summer, I traveled to Dublin with the DukeEngage cohort to undertake my own investigation: the recent suspension, via the Dublin City Council, of The Exchange, a collective arts center in downtown Dublin. At present, I’m 34 pages deep in transcriptions from interviews I conducted with Exchange volunteers, activists, academics, arts administrators, and politicians. Once I’ve transcribed the last few interviews, I’ll begin to post updates on the blog from time to time as I put the pieces of the story together.

It’s still difficult to visualize, at this point, what exactly the story I write will look like. But I am certain, especially in the midst of ongoing press about the closure of The Exchange and similar arts venues in Dublin, that the story I write will attempt to interrogate both the closures themselves and the ways in which I came to know them, and their sphere of actors and participants. Why do I care? What experiences stateside, both personally felt and otherwise, contribute to my interest in the collapse of creative spaces anywhere? What kind of story can a relative ‘outsider’ tell about these stories generally, and The Exchange’s story specifically?

A few days ago, writer, artist, and radio documentarian Gareth Stack published a short audio documentary about the startling trend of creative spaces closing in the city, and what can be inferred from this trend about Dublin’s, and Ireland’s financial wherewithal. Put another way, in the prelude to his report: ”Could the city’s economic status be gauged from the number of independent arts spaces that’ve closed down, suggesting a new competition for space?” In the piece, Gareth interviews representatives of several different arts spaces about gentrification, the relationship between art-making and place, and the ways in which arts organizations’ structures are changing as demand for real estate threatens to erase them.

Gareth actually contacted me over the summer, referred by an Exchange volunteer who I talked to several times during the two weeks I was in the city. He was just then beginning the radio piece and was looking for more contacts, more stories of spaces being threatened with closure (or in the process of closing). His piece is helpful as I continue to contextualize The Exchange’s story within other ones, as well as recreate my experience from the summer on the pages of a Word document.

But the thing I like most about Gareth’s piece—which stands alone as culture reportage—is the way it’s embedded, on his personal website, within a longer (written) narrative of his own connection to these creative spaces, especially The Exchange. You can read this piece, replete with photos from his time at The Exchange,  here. He talks about how he found both The Exchange and another non-hierarchical collective space, Seomra Spraoi, after graduating from college. “I found myself footloose and penniless,” he writes. “Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate.” Volunteering at The Exchange offered him an alternative, and quickly became a vibrant community in which he played a key part. He calls his time there “three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life.” The language he uses to describe and to commemorate his time there is not dissimilar from that of other volunteers I interviewed over the summer. I have hours of audio recordings that are made up, simply, of different voices describing their favorite events, exhibitions, and moments spent at The Exchange. The details of their experience testify to the venue’s uniqueness. I wonder, still, what it would’ve been like to be there.

Gareth’s longer narrative is another voice, and another testimony, for this evolving archive. (Several of the volunteers I interviewed told me my piece would add to the archive, too). And I say “evolving” because in the wake of these closures there’s another trend forming: what these people will do with their memories, with their relationships, with their art, with their activism. There’s the question of what Dublin’s —or Durham’s, or any city’s—creative architecture will look like in 10 years, but there’s also the question of what it will look like in two months. And this archive is part of that doing.

—MD

Sep 262014
 
 September 26, 2014

There are several things that interest me about Alice Gregory’s recent New Yorker profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein (the New Yorker paywall is still down, so you can read it here). There’s the objective feat—and perhaps oddity—of Botstein’s 40-year (and counting) leadership of the college, and the fairly young age (27) at which his tenure began. There are Botstein’s intellectual proclivities that position him somewhere between savant and dilettante: he entered college at age 16, did Ph.D. work on the social history of Viennese modernist music, and devotes time to social justice work and orchestra conducting. There’s the institution itself: small, secluded, and aggressively committed to the liberal arts. Extracurricular accoutrements like Greek life and athletics don’t jive there in the way they would at, say, a school like Duke. The types of students Bard tends to attract, Gregory (a Bard alumna) explains, are “easy to caricature.” Instead of “being student-body presidents or varsity point guards, they took black-and-white photographs of their friends’ shoes, wrote first chapters of postmodern novels, and played in noise bands. They were apt to believe that their talents and interests could be assessed only subjectively.”

Leon Botstein, conducting Bard. Illustration for The New Yorker by John Cuneo.

Leon Botstein, conducting Bard. Illustration for The New Yorker by John Cuneo.

But the most interesting question the piece arises for me—as a writer, as a reader, and as someone fairly embedded in contemporary higher education— is who, or what, exactly, is being profiled. I left the piece wanting to read at least five more pages of it. I wanted the seedy details of undergraduate life at Bard; I wanted to know what the “parties” Gregory alludes to are like. When I applied to college I was definitely a B&W photo-taker and postmodern novel enthusiast (I didn’t know what “noise” music was until later, when a friend at UNC—who almost went to Bard—explained it to me). Back then, I didn’t know who Botstein was. I didn’t think about the imprints of college presidents on “their” respective institutions, but I nevertheless focused my attention on institutional culture. Did the students at X college care about learning? Did they care about it enough to lay on the grass and talk philosophy into the morning hours? What scenery would I observe from the classroom of my avant-garde poetry seminar? I had the sense that Bard would foster a distinctly different undergraduate experience than a place like Duke. I erred on the side of Duke. And despite that decision’s tie to my sense that Duke and Durham’s relationship was more substantial than that of many New England liberal arts colleges, I still saw colleges as tiny islands. Collectively constructed, but somehow singular in their identities.

Reading about a place like Bard—and about its selfsame leader—does make me think about the college student I could’ve been had I attended elsewhere. But moreso these days it makes me think about what sustainable educational institutions look like in 2014 (and counting). How are their finances managed? Do they have finances in the first place? Do the “eye-catching initiatives” Gregory mentions secure funding, or is it more lucrative to pound the pavement of the traditional liberal arts? Do these initiatives line up with the culture of the student body, and how is that body consciously—or unconsciously—shifting?

I think about Black Mountain College, that remarkable progressive institution nestled in the hills outside of Asheville that attracted an all-star list of 20th century artists and educators. It stayed (financially) alive for only 24 years, from 1933-1957, but the the lore seems to grow bigger with each passing decade. (In fact, the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center just received significant expansion funds). There are books written by alumni with feverish appreciation for their school and time spent there; there are odes to larger-than-life professors and poets; there are odes to being young in the 1940s and happening to attend Black Mountain, and the ensuing magical convergence of these two things. I came across a funny exchange on Twitter in response to Gregory’s article. The respondent suggested that Bard should’ve “followed the route of Black Mountain rather than becoming Botstein University.” Gregory’s response: “Even though Black Mountain doesn’t exist anymore?” Maybe it’s a suggestion that Bard break post-Botstein and, to borrow that modernist adage, “make it new.” Or maybe Bard will cease to exist as the world knows it, as Bard-Botstein are inextricably linked. Then what? The institution—any institution—will look different, but that’s not a passive action. Even as our educational landscape changes, I imagine that learning spaces will subsist: collectively constructed, but somehow singular in their identities.

—MD

Sep 192014
 
 September 19, 2014

After several months away, Kenan’s finally headed back to our home base, the West Duke building. Keep track of the move on our Instagram (@KenanEthics).

West Duke's new tracklights and seating arrangements!

West Duke’s new tracklights and seating arrangements!

Sep 112014
 
 September 11, 2014

Ellerbe Creek is a body of water that runs through downtown Durham. Meaning: it runs through our city and contains our muck. “Think of all the medicines people take and then flush down the toilet,” the tour guide implores. “I wouldn’t let my kids swim in here. Fecal coliform.”

The water looks mucky indeed: clay-colored, churning fast, loopy with oily bubbles. It feeds into Falls Lake, which is not a natural lake. Its non-naturalness frustrated, and continues to frustrate, nearby residents; their land was taken and dug and filled with water, yes, but also mosquitoes and pollution. photo 1

The tour of the Glennstone Nature Preserve turns out to be as much about the surrounding forest—its canopies, its rose-hips and big-bodied black snakes, its spray-painted neon orange, marking where public land stops and Army Corps land begins—as about the water itself. (Where did my body end and the crystal and white world begin?). It is also, perhaps equally, about the history of Durham development, filtered through two Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association tour guides. They’ve lived in Durham long enough to have conversations with people who worked in Erwin Mill when it was an actual mill. Blue jean indigo used to run into the creek.

I scribbled that in my notebook the other day—the creek running blue—because I liked the image (forget the pollution!). But my assignment, assigned on the creekbank, was to write about something I’d noticed on the trail, and to describe it in formal, third-person detail. This was—is—hard for me. I wanted to write about the two women tour guides, how they gave our group a collaborative map of Ellerbe Creek by finishing each other’s sentences. How their excitement about stump sprouts excited me. How the leaves looked next to the mushroom fairy rings. I wanted to understand the forest, the creek, and the developed land holistically: one thing, albeit nuanced, but one thing. I wanna be cohesive!, as the fictional Hushpuppy moans in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

In other words, I wanted to position myself at the center of the ecosystem: me, writing about my surroundings. Which is funny, because I’d just dropped in on this trail on this day through a class I’m taking. And as I told one of the guides, I’d lived here my whole life, but never traversed the banks of Ellerbe. 23 years is a lot of time for a city to transform: livelihoods can revert, invert, take different shape. So can creekbeds and the creeks they carry.

It’s a lot to ask to understand the before, during, and after—of a place, a person, a story. On this day, September 11, I read a Facebook remembrance post by a friend. She wrote about those of us who have little memory of what came “before” that date. I was in fifth-grade; I’ve told “my” story a million times (it was sunny out; I was confused about how something bad could be happening in the world if it was sunny out). But it was vaguely kid-stuff before, and adolescence after.

photo 2I start to wonder: is that before memory within my control? What about the during, and after? I asked one of the tour guides if an investigative article had ever been written about the creek, considering it exists within plain sight of Durham’s residents. “No,” she said, after asking her tour partner. “Maybe you should write it!” I fantasized my potential agency: I write a luxurious, sprawling journalistic account of the creek’s history, and suddenly more people care. It’s the same fantasy that flickers sometimes about my project in Dublin this summer: if I write a good piece about the multiple dimensions of The Exchange’s suspension, maybe more people will care that it happened at all, or at least want to understand the situation more deeply. Maybe they’ll want to understand each other more deeply.

In this current, there’s an ethics of control, and there’s an ethics of empathy, and I want to be able to cite enough philosophers and enough theorists to cover every inch of nuance of both. I’m not sure that project is within my control, nor am I sure it should be. Inevitably, it will revert, invert, take different shape.

This morning, feeling weight from the day and from the idea of writing, I walked outside our building and sat at a picnic table and watched a ball of fluff float until my eyes strained or the ball became indistinguishable with the color of the sky or both. I sat there for a few minutes and then walked back. My legs lately feel taut and Tinman-like. (I just started dancing again after a few months’ break. “I’m a little rickety,” I keep telling people. I also walked about 1.6 miles through the woods yesterday).

I came inside and opened The Chronicle; there was a 9/11 Remembrance advertisement on one page, and a giant Miró painting on the other. I came back to my desk, and Ikea USA had tweeted, “Save time for reflection this Patriot Day morning.” (The account has since deleted the tweet). I felt strange about that (who decided it was called “Patriot Day”?), so I started writing my way into and out of it—that current, that stream—controlling only as much as the words ahead of me.

—MD

Sep 042014
 
 September 4, 2014

If you want to go on an adventure in plain sight on a Tuesday, you must first tell yourself it is an adventure. Hitch a bus from Smith Warehouse and sit in the very back, on the right, where you can rest your legs, fully extended, on the metal crossbar. Feel the weight of your body brace the window as the bus turns left; stare at the unfurling greenery as you make your way to West Campus. You make notes in your notebook under the heading, “To West on a Tuesday.”

The history of LGBTQ activism, advocacy, and acceptance at Duke was “neither quick nor linear,” as an information plaque in the Perkins Gallery tells you. This is part of a new exhibition—Queering Duke History—curated by Denzell Faison, who graduated this past spring. This is the exhibition you travel to West Campus to see. It’s about the history of queer activism at Duke; it’s about, as Faison says in his curatorial statement, “refut[ing] the prevailing theory that Duke University never actively discriminated against LGBTQ individuals.”

The exhibition feels both introductory and comprehensive; accessible, but chock-full of deep cuts—Chronicle editorials, banners, “Coming Out Party” flyers—from the Duke Archives. There are photos of impassioned student protestors and there is a hard copy of Steven Petrow’s controversial 1990s Duke Magazine article on the AIDS crisis. There is a big red “rejected” stamp on a queer student group’s charter.

photo-5You come to West Campus, not for a class or a meeting, but in search of this exhibition—because you want to write about it, which means you want to place it within some larger conversation about the history of Duke and what Duke looks like now. You live and breathe what Duke looks like now, because you both went to school and now work here, so you focus on the visceral particulars. When you get off the bus on West Campus, you’re greeted by heat and negative space. Walking through campus on 97-degree days feels like a whole-body gulp of hot tonic. You take photos of the construction alongside Perkins and the Divinity School; there is no shade, due to the magnolia trees now being gone, but there is the chain-link fence and the excavated dirt behind it. There is the banner on the fake Gothic construction siding: “Coming Soon to Bostock: The Research Commons.” There is the mulch path you must now take to Perkins. A desire line you didn’t make.

Once inside, you walk around the Queering Duke History, which is arranged in a chronological circle. Some students walk through, en route to class, and bemoan loudly that they “hate how the [usual Perkins] entrance is closed.” Another stops and peers down into one of the glass boxes while talking on the phone in Spanish. You think about how maybe, now, the Perkins Gallery is an extension of the library’s commons, the sudden link between Von der Heyden and the circulation desk.

You think about your last interview in Dublin this summer, with a sociologist, in the rose garden at Trinity College. He studies the commons. He also, after the Great Recession, co-founded an online activist hub called The Provisional University, an “autonomous research project that emerges in response to the precarious conditions we find ourselves living and working in and a desire to transform them.” Their mission seems like a rebuke to the “tragedy of the commons”: its participants choose, in present circumstances, to collectively imagine better. They acknowledge what they’ve lost, but devise an image of how the community, the commons, could look different.

You think about how this particular exhibition seems timely: at the beginning of a new school year, in the face of campus’s changing facades, in this young university’s ongoing process of self-definition. You think that maybe, hopefully, others on camps are thinking similar things. But at some point you close your notebook and float out of the air conditioning and into the heat wave. You board a bus back to where you came from in the first place.

In other news:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will speak this Friday, the 5, at 7 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium about the 2014 Duke Summer Reading, Americanah. The event is free and open to the public.
  • Last week, the Durham Herald Sun reprinted my recent Insider piece, “Surfacing.” You can read it online here.

—MD