Returning to plain old 2021 after visiting the Beatles’ 1969 is bringing me down with a pretty hard bump this week.
For one, I leave Peter Jackson’s eight-hour Thanksgiving weekend Disney+ juggernaut The Beatles: Get Back with an overwhelming desire to consume tea with milk, toast, and marmalade. Even as I type this. Because the first thing we learn in these films is that, whatever other addling or clarifying substances they may have on board, tea and toast is home base for these lads. Their small staff includes one young man whose entire role seems to be ensuring tea and toast appear at their elbows every hour or so. When they decamp from Twickenham Studios to the basement of the Apple building on Savile Row, he is briefly joined by two young women similarly tasked — perhaps part of some Beatles-tea-and-toast-provision candystriping program. It is a serious commitment for them, and they clearly know something I don’t know. So let’s have some, and see what unfolds.
More seriously, the film is really doing chronological violence to me. Mainly because the fractious events of “Get Back” take place in January 1969. I was born six months after these events, eleven days after the moon landing and two weeks before Woodstock. Am I alone in dividing the events of the world between the unknowable past and the present I was nominally part of, even as a mewling babe? I remember being obsessed with “when” I was in the world from very young. I quizzed my parents about the period depicted in “Happy Days” (oh early boomer nostalgia), and whether or not our plain-old seventies could ever be as musically and fashionably cool as apparently “the fifties” were (oh apparently yes, little me).
So none of this location / dislocation is helped at ALL by having one series of important-to-me musical events obsessively documented and digitally intensified until they roar into an uncanny resemblance to my current life. The enhancement of this fifty year-old footage is so high-res, in such creamy and vivid colors and textures, that I really feel I am meeting these four young (so young) men as easily as I might meet the members of Foo Fighters on a televised Grammy stage, or the members of Metallica in their own closely-filmed encounter with vanity and demons and hopes and fears. I feel like I am watching contemporary people discussing things they are very angry about with unfailing English reserve. And then an antique Coke bottle comes into frame, and I am reminded I am also watching men from an age when therapy meant analysis on a couch or ECT, and notions like “passive-aggressive” and even “resentment” weren’t really in play yet. Even though everyone involved is expert in their uses.
The reminder of “when” we are matters a lot to me as I watch their process unfold. Because for me the film is more than anything about how creating stuff really works, at least sometimes.
For one thing, the technology we accept so easily as being “rock and roll”…wasn’t. I look at George Harrison’s gorgeous chocolate Telecaster and remember the thing had been invented not twenty years earlier. It was as old as the iPod is to us; already with a rich history, for sure, but Keith Richards’ “open G” revolution on the same instrument wouldn’t happen until later that same year, I don’t think. It was still what Buddy Holly held strapped up high, not what gunslingers wore way down low (I know, he played a Strat, but still). The Fender Rhodes piano was just a couple of years into mass production. When the one Billy Preston plays on the date is unboxed, Lennon fiddles around on it and mentioned he has one from a a couple of years ago. but this one sounds better. It is breathtaking for a gearhead like me to see a new one; folks of my generation are used to seeing them, in the rare moments when we do, with bashed corners and dicky keys from decades of road wear.
And a brief conversation about how to tune one, with Preston pawing ineffectually at the front of the cover before giving up, is a touching reminder of how new the whole electrical music project really was. Eddie Van Halen wouldn’t hot-rod his Frankenstrat for another ten years. Who actually knows how this stuff works? Hendrix’s great leaps forward were two years old, barely assimilated even at the edge of the avant-garde. The huge pots on the state-of-the-art cobbled-together eight-track mixing desk; the primitive soundproofing and separation of tracks (“there’s amp in the PA, Glyn”); even the guitars left stacked around or falling off chairs (was the guitar stand not invented yet? Or are these youngsters just not good at taking care of their things?) — all suggest the unwieldiness of the technology. A naïveté about what it was, and what it could do.
It also points out that these musicians, in these moments anyway, were mostly unencumbered by the culture of studio manipulation and innovation that they helped create. They had already wandered into the deep dark endless woods of studio experimentation, starting just four years earlier. And a year for the Beatles was a decade for normal people. Consider: the release of “Sgt. Peppers” was a more recent event to 1969 them than the start of the COVID pandemic is to us. And they had already shrugged off both its psychedelic pretenses (well, some of the clothes were apparently still in their closets) and its studio tricks in favor of seeking something grittier and more alive than its exquisite corpse of tape loops and distortions.
This realization — that the stakes were super high for these sessions, and also that they cared not a bit for them (except Paul, who comes off as caring quite a lot about most things) — recasts their established genius as something both less and more than what it actually was.
First, that their “process” was extremely loose at this point, to put it charitably. Part of this is that they are hardened pros with unlimited resources and unconstrained time (the looming deadlines are regularly blown through, very little flop sweat in evidence). For these cats, in these weeks, hanging out IS working. This was certainly not the case in early days, when Epstein required them to lay down “Love Me Do” with another track in a three-hour evening session. Nor would it be the case in the “Abbey Road” sessions that start just a few weeks following these events, which George Martin agreed to produce only if more discipline was imposed.
But in Jackson’s storytelling choices, the looseness and endless meandering of old friends and musical colleagues usually seems an important part of what they are subsequently able to do in the live sessions that yield so many iconic performances. It is assumed that everyone knows a core of about a hundred fifties and early-sixties American rock and roll and English skiffle. These were the songs they played in the Cavern Club and Hamburg days, after all, and is the core DNA of their work as sure as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was for the Stones. So John starting “Milk Cow Blues,” with both the original’s frame and Elvis’ Sun Sessions boogie take in play, and everyone else jumping in on it, is just assumed. It is part of being “an actual Beatle, don’t you know,” as John proclaims himself at one point. “Actual Beatles” know American rock and roll intimately and wear it like their own skin, Ike Turner and Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. And when you have nothing else to play, that’s what you play.
So much of what they did, at least here, depended upon a deep knowledge of that world’s conventions and traditions — and a willingness to goof on it, in funny voices and weird different feels, just for the fun of it. As a kind of prelude and bookend to Getting Down to Work. They sidle up to work, again and again, by dithering about on a song everyone knows. One just starts bashing away at it, and then they make fun of it or play it loose and weird (not unlike how Elvis recorded his Milk Cow, come to think of it — “Hold on fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real gone for a change”. Stagey, I know, but still feels real to me.) Then, sometimes, having shook out the cobwebs and got loose, they drop right into a take of the REAL song: the new thing that wasn’t working last time. They find their way, as I teach my writing students, by attacking the project from an angle it wasn’t expecting it.
Which gets me to the other realization. Yes, there is a lot of mucking around here. Yes, there’s the rediscovery that however these (again so young) men were irritating each other personally, they remained connected to an easy looseness in their playing together like you only can when you have for thousand of hours.
And despite that: they are not like you and I. They are more than buddies who deigned to get together to do it one more time before heading to their separate corners and careers and destinies. When their genius strikes it roars into the room and can’t be ignored. The timbre and strength of McCartney’s voice, his supple and inventive bass playing; the deftness of Lennon and Harrison’s harmonies; Harrison’s rootsy confidence in his guitar licks; especially (for me) the laconic-to-the-point-of-comatose feel and fills of Ringo’s extraordinary drumming, which he summons up after dozing behind the drums as the guitarists endlessly bicker. They were just better than us, folks. A million Guitar Center promises and YouTube tutorials to the contrary, not everyone can do what they did. They were special.
And this fact both stiffens my spine for my own creative efforts, and lets me off the hook. (Here’s the education tie-in, for this putatively education-focused blog):
— It is okay that when I try to play guitar, I don’t sound like The Beatles. They are better than me. And isn’t that marvelous. Isn’t that wonderful. The same is true when I sit down to write, or to read something hard. Or when you do. We are not the best in the world, but we get to play in the same sandbox. Like McCartney says gazing down at a piano: “The great thing about the piano is that there it all is. There’s all the music ever … All that’s ever been written is there.” And we all get to break off our little piece and be in there on the same blank page, the same fretboard.
— It is okay not to engage and subdue the enemy that is your present task head-on. Goof into it sometimes. Play what you already know first for a while, and mess around with it. Get loose. Sing “she attracts me like a cauliflower” until you have something else. Get real gone for a change. And then surprise yourself by catching what is perfect when it finally appears.
— Don’t go it alone. I didn’t really watch for the interpersonal dynamics: is Paul a control freak, is John a difficult genius, all that. The answers all seem to be yes and no anyway. Because people are difficult. But people coming together can do things people alone cannot do. And the more time we spend with each other leaning against things we really care about, the better we get at it. McCartney describes Lennon the way Keith Richards does Mick Jagger: no, they were not always friends. They hated each other sometimes. But they were tied together more deeply than friendship could name, because they spent so much time in close quarters working on things that matter to them both. (Performing “joint productive activity” with an eye to “propinquity,” as the sociocultural education theory calls it.) Friends aren’t people you have a lot in common with and get along with, at least not only: they are people you go through stuff with. So find some people and go through some stuff with them.
— Finally, mostly: nothing is ever really done. It is just due. Watching these hours of jamming and rehearsal in hindsight means always listening for the songs I know so well: listening for the “right version” to finally emerge. For Harrison to teach Ringo the bridge on “Octopus’s Garden” (Go to the minor! The minor! It’s right there!), or for Paul to finally figure out that Jojo left his home in Tuscon Arizona. The experience is not unlike using a digital guitar tuner, most of which have a kind of floating bubble that drifts left and right, flat and sharp, until you dial in the “correct” 440 Hz pitch and are rewarded with a green light or a ding or something satisfying. I got it! They got it! But that same tuner — at least on my middling instruments — drifts out again almost immediately. Even in the arc of the exact same plucked guitar note, the decay goes sharp. The “ding” of “getting it” doesn’t signal perfection: it just says, “Close enough! Let’s go with it!,” so we can move on. Similarly, the versions of “Get Back” and “Oh Darling” and “Let It Be” that we know are the ones that got chosen, the mixes that got approved or, sometimes, the last one left standing after the rest were discarded. They are not perfect; they are not final in any sense other than they are the ones that were good enough so everyone involved could move on. There’s a truth to be learned here about the balance between letting something go and continuing to tinker; a lesson many with unlimited resources never learn. But maybe the rest of us, who teach and who continue to learn, should. Turn it in, let it go. Move on. Give us more to see.
Which I now do, with this too-long blog post. Love art, make art, learn from art. May you find likewise in your own life today — with less toast and tea, perhaps, but however you find it or it finds you. And may we all know that, whatever we end up doing: we passed the audition.
Photo from seriously the entire internet this week.
Lots of people are writing good remembrances of Charlie Watts. (Here’s one I really like.) But none of them are drummers, that I have found so far, and so none of them seems to get what matters most about what he did with his art.
I am a drummer, and I do. And here it is.
Charlie Watts taught me to play the back of the beat.
Not the backbeat; that’s what James Brown taught me, and all of us. That’s the 2 and the 4; the beat that sounds like rock and roll since “Rocket 88,” in which no one plays it but if you can’t hear it you’re dead. Same with Elvis’ “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” or “Rock Around the Clock” for crying out loud. It is right there in the DNA of the thing. One TWO three FOUR. The Stones were a blues band as surely as Zeppelin and the early Beatles were. Taking that American backbeat and pulling it back through their big guitars.
But Charlie Watts taught us drummers that the backbeat is a whole continent, and you can choose where and how to live on it. And he chose to live at the very end of that continent, on the western beach of every bar. His snare backbeat would push along right at the end of what we could hear as where it needed to be.
And by making that choice, suddenly each bar had so much ROOM in it. Head room, elbow room. In every way that something like “Immigrant Song” is crowded as a dance floor, “Beast of Burden” (or “Tumbling Dice,” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking“) has space for days on all sides. And you can hear how the band would lie back in it, propped against it, happy to filigree and embroider and otherwise piece in the song, confident that they had all the time in the world.
Charlie Watts taught me that a drummer is a timekeeper, but not a metronome. A drummer actually KEEPS the time: domesticates it, trains it, decides what it will do or won’t, and thereby creates the space in which the rest of the band does everything else. Richards, Jones, and Wood couldn’t have inscribed those long, languid rhythm lines and soaring lead lines against any other space than the one CW made for them.
Of course this is just not just my legacy; check the opening bars of Sheryl Crow’s great single “My Favorite Mistake” to catch the inimitable Wendy Melvoin leaning a Keith Richards riff up against Gregg Williams’ best Charlie Watts homage. Anywhere the drummer lets you exhale and stretch out: there he is. Michael Bland on Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” I actually think the main shift when Prince changed bands in the late eighties was behind the kit, from Bobby Z. to Michael B., because suddenly there was some space in all that electric funk. There’s a great bit at the top of “Calhoun Square,” where we hear Prince instructing the band on how to do it: “Listen to the drummer, but you still want to have fun. It shouldn’t be work. Two, three, BAYbay…”
There’s a lot of unaccountably breathless stuff said about a drummer’s time being an expression of their soul (even in the Mike Edison piece linked above: “It came from his heart, not from his hands…”)
Well, maybe. I am not comfortable speculating on the texture of a musician’s heart based on their art. Music isn’t a window into who someone is so much as it is an “expression” of an intention through the actual substance that comprises them, like oil pressed from an olive (that’s John Dewey’s analogy, though I can’t cite it right now — honest). And so perhaps Charlie Watts’ time reflected the sensitivity he cultivated through his jazz attentions and creations. I don’t know. I don’t have him here to ask him.
But I do have his music, and I know what his music made me notice and made me feel, and what it likewise did for his bandmates. And it was really something special. It sounded like nothing else, and so it gave us all more to hear and more to think about when we sit down at the kit and do what we do. Which is calling structure out of nothing; marking time in our own special way so that others can fill it in with their own special ways.
Not unlike being a teacher, come to think of it. In that great teachers, like great drummers, don’t merely dazzle with their words and erudition, their speed and their fills: they create spaces for others to become who they can be. Here I’ll quote Henri Nouwen on the dynamic, which he calls “hospitality” after his Christian tradition:
The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.
I love being a teacher, and I love being a drummer. I think Charlie Watts did too. I will miss him.
Image from NYT.
Today I use my small megaphone to amplify Nikole Hannah-Jones’ decision not to join the faculty of my doctoral alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is a shameful day to be a Tar Heel. Carolina’s loss is Howard’s gain. I hope for change in my state, and its flagship university — the kind that can only come from the pain of national public humiliation. Though I don’t have much reason to believe it’s forthcoming.
Her actual statement will probably not be read by many (it’s at the link), so I will excerpt it at length below. What could I possibly add.
“These last few weeks have been very dark. To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful. The only bright light has been all of the people who spoke up and fought back against the dangerous attack on academic freedom that sought to punish me for the nature of my work, attacks that Black and marginalized faculty face all across the country…
“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it. How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes? Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.
“The Board of Trustees wanted to send a message to me and others like me, and it did. I always tell college students and journalists who are worried that they will face discrimination, who fear that they will be judged not by their work but for who they are or what they choose to write about, that they can only worry about that which is in their own control: their own excellence. I tell them all they can do is work as hard as possible to make themselves undeniable. And yet, we have all seen that you can do everything to make yourself undeniable, and those in power can change the rules and attempt to deny you anyway.
“Since the second grade when I began being bused into white schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke, how I looked, the work I produced.
“I have never asked for special treatment. I did not seek it here. All I asked was to be judged by my credentials and treated fairly and equally…
“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.
“I fought this battle because I know that all across this country Black faculty, and faculty from other marginalized groups, are having their opportunities stifled, and that if political appointees could successfully stop my tenure, then they would only be emboldened to do it to others who do not have my platform. I had to stand up. And, I won the battle for tenure.
“But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight. And I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.”
It also bears repeating that “Hannah-Jones traveled to Chapel Hill over the weekend to meet with the Carolina Black Caucus and student protesters to tell them in person because she “didn’t want them to feel betrayed.”
“She also told them she was grateful for their support and appalled at how they were treated at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, when they were pushed out of the room by law enforcement after initially refusing to leave for a closed session.
“Hannah-Jones said she had not told UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and outgoing Provost Bob Blouin of her decision.
“But as for the chancellor and the provost, I didn’t, because I haven’t heard from them since this happened,” Hannah-Jones said. “So I didn’t feel the need.”
The condemnation this weekend of a vile editorial about whether Dr. Jill Biden should retain her academic title when she becomes First Lady was gratifyingly swift, and its defense has been predictably toothless. It is not the first attack Dr. Biden has endured for her education commitments, and it certainly won’t be the last. Maybe it is not worthy of more attention. We shouldn’t feed trolls more eyeballs. Perhaps there’s nothing more to say.
But I think there is. Because the degree in question is the Ed.D., the Doctor of Education. And it seems that both Dr. Biden’s attackers and her defenders are unwittingly re-enacting the same pernicious story that has long afflicted that particular degree. And the women who hold it, and education generally. Alongside the misogyny within this attack lies the systematic devaluing of education as a serious field of study and a worthy object towards which to tilt one’s life. And no one seems to be talking about it. Allow me to try.
A trip down the Wikipedia page that elaborates the history of the term “doctor” is a dizzying tour of the history of ego and power tied up in a term of address. The boundary maintenance around who can and can’t use the title has long been the hallmark of the integrity of several fields — academic integrity, sure, but also economic integrity. If everyone is a “doctor,” then who gets to say who are the real experts, and who are the quacks? A lot of influence — and money — hangs in the balance around that question.
Fascinating and important history notes the American Medical Association’s role in both asserting their own scientific seriousness and, in the same gesture, dismissing those who weren’t “scientific” in their ways as dangerous charlatans. It includes the dramatic recasting of medical education a century ago as requiring specific scientific and clinical training that decimated caregiving in other traditions, especially those that had thrived for generations in historically Black medical schools. Who gets to be a doctor, and who doesn’t, is not merely a question of getting a maitre’d to secure you a desirable table, or whatever other social pretensions with which Biden is currently being impugned. The question of who is a doctor is has been life-or-death, to entire disciplines of care as well as the communities they serve.
Moreover: as academic Ph.Ds have been maligned as “not real doctors” by holders of the allopathic M.D., so has the Ed.D. been historically maligned as a “less than” degree within the academic community. Distressingly, there remains a tacit bias in many universities that what happens in a school of education is essentially preparation for the twin trades of teaching children and supervising those teachers. That there is nothing further to think about, research, or explore in the field, since it is foremost a practical one. If this is the case, then their salaries can be lower, and their representation in university affairs can be muted. A caste system can be maintained, if not acknowledged.
Part of this situation might be correctly placed, we must note. The Ed.D. has the distinction of being among the first “professional doctorates” widely offered. A preparation that develops expertise in practice, not theory and research — that is outwardly focused on the world in all the same ways that the Ph.D. might be considered inwardly focused on the basic science of its the field. The rise of the professional doctorate in many fields alongside its research-driven counterpart in some cases may be an example of “credential bloat,” as its detractors have held. Many other caring fields are making the reckoning that education already has, about whether there is a specific training that fits the needs of its practitioners better than a purely academic one. The market “needs” more doctors — or at least can make money from their preparation. (Whether or not those doctorates in fact increase quality practice in the field, or simply contribute to the proliferation of “more letters,” is another important question.)
And it must be acknowledged that some Ed.D. programs have perhaps been less rigorous than their Ph.D. counterparts. For years, an ill-conceived notion of what a “clinical doctorate” should be — coupled with the economic boon for universities that came of offering one to a previously-untapped market of upwardly-mobile educational administrators — created a perfect storm for “fluff” degrees to thrive. (It should be noted that the provision of the same Ed.D. degree that has been sometimes maligned by arts, science, and humanities departments has, in many cases, funded their own faculty lines.)
The Ed.D. has been among the first in the “clinical doctorate” field to address these existential questions of identity and purpose, as well as the concomitant issues of rigor, relevance, and appropriateness. For nearly a generation, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has led a consortium of Ed.D. programs (my own among them) in doing this essential work. CPED doesn’t exist to counter the criticism of the degree: it exists to reconcile and make it equal to the crucial work its holders must do. But it also stands as an indicator of the seriousness with which this field takes itself, and a counter to thoughtless critics who seek to dismiss it.
This all probably seems like the insidest of baseball.
Until we also consider that education has rarely been taken seriously as a field of endeavor to which to dedicate one’s life, academically or otherwise. As I have detailed elsewhere, our nation’s commitment to public education turned from the beginning on the assumption that it was piecework, to be done by those who could be had on the cheap to do it. And the assumption that most of them would not make a life of it, and eventually would clear the lane for others who would continue to do it for less money than experienced practitioners would demand. When the holder of the Ed.D. is dismissed as a less-than-serious academic, she is also dismissed as someone devoting her life to a less-than-serious pursuit.
Such dismissal perpetuates the cynical fallacy undergirding the policy and social measures which today ensure that educators are treated as less-than professionals. Compensation: low. Autonomy: nascent, and vanishing. Respect: broadly offered as free burritos on teacher appreciation days; scant in ways that actually sustain careers and livelihoods on all others.
That’s one of the reasons that the way many of Dr. Biden’s defenders have gone about it stings a bit, to my ears. They have affirmed how hard she, and all holders of the Ed.D. or any legitimate doctorate, had to work to get there. They note that she, like so many Ed.D. holders, did it around the edges of a busy career, in early mornings and late nights and weekends stolen from the rest of their lives. Moreover, like so many women who disproportionally carry the emotional labor of family-making, she did it around the repeated litany of “making lunches and getting kids to school.” The argument is: respect Biden, and her degree, because she earned it, by working hard in ways you aren’t seeing. All of which is undeniably true of the majority of Ed.Ds, as I can intimately attest.
But only respecting what an educator has visibly worked for — and works for, even now — is part of what maintains the second-class status of the profession. Educators can then only be provisionally respected. Only if they are actively opening a vein for the young people they selflessly serve. How much of the Biden campaign messaging about Jill Biden has focused on how she constantly has a stack of papers to grade in her bag? How selflessly and doggedly she intends to continue her essential community college work, because it is a part of her, as a teacher with a deep sense of vocation and commitment to those she serves? If she had to do, she would do it for free, runs the message.
Show me another field that only respects their practitioners when they are doing more with less — before and after the rest of their lives each day, at great physical and emotional expense.
The greatest strength of the field of education is also its greatest vulnerability.
I do not denigrate the sacrifices that medical doctors and other health care workers make on behalf of their patients’ care, especially in our COVID time. I do note that medical doctors are respected even when they are not constantly, visibly, performing their duties unto exhaustion. Educators are not.
And ultimately misogynist stories about the unpaid and unseen labor that women perform are echoed and reinscribed every time it is stated that the reason a woman with a doctorate deserves respect is because of how hard she worked for it.
It seems to me that these are some of the deeper reasons why the holder of an education doctorate deserves respect. Because historically she hasn’t been respected — neither by the academy she joins, nor by the world she serves. And if she wishes to be respected, however tentatively, she must constantly enact the suffering and sacrifice that is required of any educator who wishes to join the ranks of the professionally honored.
That isn’t good enough. I honor Dr. Biden — and all the holders of the Ed.D. degree, including those we hooded in the Ed.D. program I serve just last week — as scholars and colleagues in full. Others who have consecrated themselves to the deep meanings behind terms like “doctor” and “professor.”
Teachers — of essential truths to those who will come next. Professors — of values and wisdoms and dispositions that are worthy of a life’s devotion.
Please join me in respecting them. Period. Full stop.
Image of the wall of my own program, where we honor each year’s finest work with the Alice Phoebe Naylor Outstanding Dissertation Award.
“Old Bob” was a horse that belonged to Blanford Barnard (“B.B.”) Dougherty, one of the founders of the school that became Appalachian State University, and its distinguished first president.
This is “Old Bob” in 1920, led by John Adams, who “worked for the Dougherty family.”
The accuracy of this photo is disputed, though. I am no horse expert, but elsewhere in the archives a similar image of a horse, against a similar background, is proclaimed NOT to be “Old Bob,” but instead a younger horse from a few decades later. Looks like the same horse to me. Mr. Adams does not appear in this photo, though given the identical size of the trees in the background, I imagine him just out of frame.
We seem to care a lot about “Old Bob” here. And there is concordance that “Old Bob” died in 1928, and that he was buried on campus, in the woods behind the Chancellor’s House at the time according to this image caption. This would mean his remains lie today roughly beneath the Watauga Residential College‘s kitchen garden, a synergy I am a little surprised our sustainability-focused campus has not yet noted.
John Adams is the single African-American I have found photographed in many hours of browsing Appalachian’s impressive online digital history archive. I have not yet read Dr. Susan Keefe’s magisterial Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian Community, which summarizes thirty years of oral history research into the community that has thrived on the mountain above the University for almost two centuries. But a search for “John Adams” in the Google Books version turns up nothing.
So John Adams is, for my purposes, invisible, as are the many many other Black people who are part of the story of this place. Unlike apparently every homecoming queen, pep rally leader, varsity sports player, or young thespian who ever got their photo in the yearbook, and subsequently in the archives.
Invisible, that is, until I look at the memorial stone placed three years ago on the 1/3 of Boone Town Cemetery, where Black people were buried for decades in unmarked graves. Dougherty himself is there too, in the white section fifty yards away beneath a tasteful marker, as are the rest of the founding fathers and mothers of this place. (The only three white people buried in the Black section are Union soldiers who died here during the war; they were placed in this section to show disrespect.)
The unmarked section lay in disrepair and disrespect for years, unfenced and uncultivated. Students stole the few stones that had been placed, and exercised their dogs there. But finally in 2017, archeological and archival work culminated in the dedication of the marker, which names as many people as can be identified who lie there. And a “John Adams” appears, 1893-1954, who may be the man in the photo.
I estimate the unmarked section of the cemetery is about two acres square, and contains the remains of more than 160 people.
The field behind where I think the chancellor’s house used to be is a bit smaller, and contains the remains of one horse.
What I am coming to is the realization that the final resting place of B.B. Dougherty’s horse may be more precisely known than that of the man who cared for him.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
My obsession with the history of Boone, North Carolina — my home of the last eleven years — sneaked up on me, and surprised me. Maybe it is just more evidence of my chameleonic nature. After all, when I lived in Chapel Hill, I became a college basketball fan; when I moved to a place where history is visible on every street, I became an historian.
But I think it is something deeper and more abiding than that compels me to care about history here. A few years ago I encountered Wendell Berry’s profound pronouncement about the sacredness of the exact ground beneath our feet:
No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people
Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.
And so I turned my attention to reading the streets and the buildings, seeking out old maps and photos, trying to piece together what used to be here or there and still is if you squint hard. In this I sometimes come across the history of segregation and institutionalized racism that remains written on our built environment, as on so many in the south. (Both our “consolidated” — read, “segregated” — school buildings still stand, as does the movie theater that stayed in business when the newer, bigger one opened because it allowed Black patrons into the balcony.)
But I also come across the fruits of the WPA’s deep investment in job creation up here, in buildings that still stand throughout campus as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway that lies ten minutes away. And everywhere I see evidence of this institution’s long-time requirement “do more with less,” as numerous chancellors have put it. Few public universities have the resources they need, but Appalachian’s remoteness from the big flagship universities, regionalism, and (say it) anti-appalachian sentiment have kept state funding of the place low for decades. So we don’t tear much down, considering. Everything gets refurbished and reclad to last another generation.
Which all means that the story of this place is so easy to find. It cries out to be read. I live in a house that appears in some of the first photos of Boone, built 1925. The history is in the floorboards, in the tag from the phone company in 1940 that hangs from an abandoned wire in the basement. I can’t help but see it.
I teach it too. Both to those who come to learn from me and those who don’t. I do local history in all my classes, especially of school segregation and how it played out in this community as a way to understand its echoes across the state. And I am a bore to anyone who will listen about what that building used to be, where this street used to run, the railroad and the lumber camp and the schools, the schools, the schools.
I am not just a pedant (though that too, probably). I really can’t help myself. I can’t stop from speaking the past into the present everywhere I have opportunity, because to do so suddenly gives so much depth to our experiences of this place today.
I mean something related to that uncanny sense we have when looking at “old photographs” of glimpsing someone who, through some trick of the lens or the light, does not look like they are “old’ but instead startlingly present, from right now. Those people were real people. (Spend a few minutes with this image of the graduating class of 1916 to see what I mean.)
I mourn the fact that so many of our photos are of “occasions” — birthdays and Christmases in our own photo albums, parades and football games. Because exactly what make “occasions” seem special enough to film in the moment are what makes them virtually indistinguishable in hindsight. Occasion images are the least interesting to find in the archives: this dance, that commencement. What fascinates instead are the images people took of things too commonplace to mention or document. What shoes people wore. What was on the front page of the newspaper in someone’s hand. John Adams’ hat.
To look at old images this way is to imbue today with a sense of mystery and meaning too. These shoes here, this hat I wore this morning, also mean something. This little life is being played out on the same ground, in the same halls, that those were. There is a kinship, a connection, not of fame or import but of merely being in parallel. Benevolent ghosts imbuing the present with something it lacks on its own. Others have been in these rooms, and others will be. That is okay.
And it is not. Because who is erased in all this seeing and noting? What casual violence is done in our own image-making and our own naming, as surely as was done to John Adams in the record? That we will see a hundred years hence and wonder how we could be so blind and so terrible in our banality?
Let us see now better than then.
A poem of my own, with obvious debt to Berry.
A place is sanctified a couple ways.
By what transpired there, now or long ago:
A battlefield, a hospital, a school.
Whatever its intent, its witnesses
Have made it something more than ever thought.
And so we monumentalize, inscribe.
Or what portends to happen there. Is hoped.
A temple — or a hospital (again)
A schoolyard (yet again): the holy truth
Of most of our humane pretending shown
By how we hope to care and hope to mend.
But by these lights: what isn’t sacred ground?
A bedroom — safe for resting, safe for love?
A kitchen — wrought for sustenance and health?
A highway — graded smooth to guide our path?
A storefront — where a family subsists?
A basketball, abandoned in a lot?
An empty can, reposing in a grate?
A river, in its form if not its stuff?
The line of thinking grows absurd: it’s all
Imbued with latent wonder. Power at rest.
The world is teaching mutely, if we look:
The present moment’s immaterial.
The pattern’s what ennobles and enshrines.
The ways that spaces and their objects shape
Our own intentions, turn and point our eyes.
Our industry, our hopes for those to come.
The only sacred’s what we bring to bear.
If not, a rosary’s a bunch of beads,
A classroom just a warehouse for the young,
A hospital a catalog of pain.
No sacred save our ears, our glance, our touch.