Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Year in Dr. J

Before I drop the 2011 Year in Pop Culture, which will be the last of my year-end lists, I thought I'd do one recounting my own year. 2011 began for me with a bit of a rough transition, as I was returning from a semester-long sabbatical, but things eventually smoothed out and stayed running smoothly (for the most part) for the duration. I had some great classroom experiences with my students this year, I met a couple of my musical and academic heroes, I spent a lot of Saturday nights having incredible fun at Wild Bill's, the traffic on this blog got a couple of major boosts from national media outlets, and I even made my first foray into the "art" world with the American Values Project. To top it all off, my hometown Memphis, a city that I love as much as I love bacon, also had a pretty great year. So, all in all, I figured that Memphis and I deserve to record our own 2011 list for posterity.

So, here it is, the 2011 Year in Dr. J (in roughly chronological order):

"Why I Chose Memphis" Series Featured in The Memphis Flyer
Near the end of 2010, I started a series on this blog called "Why I Chose Memphis," where I asked people to tell the stories of how they ended up living in Memphis. We got stories from an economist, a filmmaker, a local news broadcaster, a Bulgarian ex-pat, and even a sommelier! I got the idea for the series from one of my ex-students, Jessica Lotz, who had decided that she was sick and tired of all of the bad press Memphis had been getting in 2010. The stories I featured in the "Why I Chose Memphis" series accomplished what Jessica and I had hoped: they debunked the myth that Memphis is a miserable city, devoid of intelligence and attractiveness. Instead, our stories showed the warmth and resilience of Memphis and Memphians, as well as the love that both have and deserve. Then, in January of this year, I was contacted by a reporter from our local alternative weekly newspaper, The Memphis Flyer, who wanted to run a short story about the series. My interview with the Flyer is here. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the first of what would be several times in 2011 that other news outlets linked to this blog. For the record, I'm still taking "Why I Chose Memphis" stories, so send yours in!

American Values Project Spro
uts Wings
In February of 2011, I had a half-baked idea to make a video, which I imagined would be a collage of photographs of people naming something that they value. So, I put out a (not very well designed) call on my blog for photos... and that, my dear readers, was the beginning of what is now the American Values Project. People from all over the United States responded to my call and sent in photos of themselves holding a handwritten sign naming something that they valued. I made the short video that I had originally planned, but very soon afterwards I realized that the project had taken on a life of its own. Photos just kept coming in, and at some point I was going to have to figure out how to keep the project going. So, I set up a Facebook page for what I was now calling the "American Values Project." And the photos just kept coming in. Then, in April, the American Values Project got another big boost, when curator Tally Beck (of Tally Beck Contemporary) in New York City invited us to exhibit a portion of our photos in his gallery as a part of the Festival of Ideas for a New City. (That exhibit happened in May and was a great success!) Not long after the New York exhibit, Rhodes College featured the project on its website, and decided to give me an assistant for the Fall semester. Now, American Values Project has its own website and Twitter feed, and we're in the process of trying to fund another gallery exhibit in the Spring. It's only as I write this now that I'm realizing just how far this project has come in less that one year. If you haven't taken a minute to watch the slideshow of images from the AVP, you really should. It's moving, funny, inspirational, sometimes even curious. And it's one of the best things I've "created" in my whole life. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself!

Memphis Believes In "All Heart, Grit, Grind"... And I Do, Too!
In April, the whole city of Memphis was on fire with Grizz fever, as our NBA team (the Memphis Grizzlies) made an improbably fantastic run in the playoffs. Memphis was in the middle of a historic flood and a tragic foreclosure crisis, and the all heart, grit and grind of the Grizzlies was just what we needed to bring us together. (There's nothing like sports fandom for galvanizing civic pride!) Grizz strongman Zach Randolph summed it up best when he said that one of the reasons the Grizz thrived in Memphis was because they were a working-class team and Memphis was a working-class town. So true. I was lucky enough to be at the FedEx Forum (aka, the Grindhouse) for the Grizzlies' series-clinching win over the San Antonio Spurs, which also happened to be the same night as the Memphis in May Music Festival. Downtown was downright electric. People were honking and high-fiving and hugging and shouting "BELIEVE MEMPHIS!" I don't think I've ever loved my town as much as I did that night. Perhaps best of all, the Grindhouse theme song "All I Do Is Win" became a Memphis theme song. Now every time Memphians walk into the building everybody's hands go UP. And they stay there.

30 Day Song Challenge Reminds Me That I Love Writing

In June, as regular readers of this blog will know, I participated in the Facebook meme "30 Day Song Challenge." (You can read all of my entries here.) The Challenge gave me a musical prompt for every day-- a "song that makes you happy," a "song that you want played at your wedding," a "song you used to love but now hate," etc-- and I chose to write a blog post for each selection. I can say, without any reservations at all, that the whole month of June constituted the most purely enjoyable 30 days of writing I've ever done. I don't think I realized how much I love music, or how central it is to how I understand my life and my world, until I did the Challenge. Even better, my posts during the Challenge sparked a lot of really interesting conversations with my friends, some strangers, and some strangers that became friends. Just a few days ago, at Christmas dinner, I learned that even my mom read all my posts for the 30 Day Song Challenge! (My mom and I had a brief disagreement about my Day 16 disparaging of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," but it's all good.) In July, I briefly attempted-- and then gave up on-- my ridiculously self-designed 31 Days in Seuss, realizing in the process that I am most definitely not a poet. Honestly, if you want to know all there is to know of significance about Dr. J, you can find it in the blog posts from the 30 Day Song Challenge. F'realz.

Anthony Appiah visits Rhodes and The Honor Code

In September, Rhodes had the good fortune of hosting eminent philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. He came to campus to discuss his NYT bestseller The Honor Code, and as one of the (only four) philosophers in residence at Rhodes, I got to spend quite a bit of time talking to him about it. The basic premise of Appiah's book is that there are certain extra-moral codes (like codes of "honor," for example) that often shape what we end up calling "moral revolutions." Appiah's book poses the rather perplexing question: why, when all of the rational arguments against things like slavery, foot-binding, and dueling are already in place, do those practices continue to persist as acceptable? What exactly is it that prompts moral revolutions? Appiah's public lecture was as erudite and compelling as I anticipated, but it was really in our more intimate conversations over lunch and dinner that I found myself utterly impressed with his quite natural philosophical skill and cosmopolitanism. Almost every year, I teach Appiah's famous essay "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" in my Philosophy of Race class, but I had always been suspect of some of the philosophical assumptions that underpinned his wok in critical race theory. I'm so glad I had the chance to sit and chat with him at length during his visit to Rhodes. He is, without question, a scholar and a gentleman... and I say that with absolutely no irony. He's also quite funny, which is always a plus in my book.

Hanging Out With Lucinda Williams

In October, I was getting ready for school one morning when the local NPR station announced that they had 2 tickets remaining to give away for Lucinda Williams' concert the next evening. They said anyone who wanted the tickets should just email the radio station. So I did. Now, let me just say that I've never won anything in my life... but at the end of the day, I checked my email and I HAD WON THE TICKETS!! The only thing more exciting than winning concert tickets was winning tickets to Lucinda Williams, who is one of my musical idols. I asked my good friend and fellow Lucinda-superfan, Kelly (who writes the very excellent blog, A Certain Solitary Pleasure), to go with me. We had a great time and it was an amazing show. We were right on the front row, less than 5 feet from Lucinda, singing along at the top of our lungs the whole time. After it was over, I asked one of her road crew if there was any way I could meet her. (Kelly said I was being "pushy" but, hey, the worst they can say is "no," right?) The roadie looked a little skeptical, so I started to tell him about my American Values Project, since Lucinda had spoken quite a bit about #OWS during her show and I thought she might be sympathetic to a project like ours. As it turns out, she was. My friend and I got invited onto Lucinda's tour bus, where we spent about an hour talking, laughing, and taking photos (of her and her whole band) for the American Values Project. Lucinda was warm and funny and smart and committed to good politics, just as I hoped she would be in "real" life. Along with my night with Kermit Ruffins in New Orleans last year, and my getting to sing onstage at B.B. Kings on Beale Street the year before, this will go down as one of the most memorable music moments of my life!

Talking Truth and Reconciliation with Antjie Krog

In another getting-to-meet-my-idols story, I had the good fortune to meet and serve on a panel with Antjie Krog, South African poet, journalist and author. Krog was one of the reporters who covered the proceedings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wrote Country of My Skull recounting that experience. She came to Rhodes in November to deliver a lecture and poetry reading, both of which drew an overflowing audience. Thanks to my good friend, Mark Behr (who organized Krog's visit), I got to spend a lot of time with Krog. She is, in almost every conceivable way, the very model of an engaged intellectual. I don't think there's been any academic, other than Derrida, who has had me so star-struck upon meeting him or her. Krog not only has a very powerful presence about her, she IS a presence-- a soft-spoken, slight, mild-looking woman who commands attention and respect with the power of her words alone. Greatest moment: getting to discuss my weak humanism ideas with her, outside on a deck, smoking an after-dinner cigarette.

Rhodes College Gets Occupied
Well, kind of. My college attracts a lot of socially- and politically-engaged students, but the nature of their engagement, on the whole, is more service-oriented than it is activism-oriented. So, although our campus hasn't really seen a homegrown contingent of Occupiers just yet, a significant group of students were moved enough by the events at UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis in November to organize a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the students at those schools. They had a great turnout and a really inspiring and mature open discussion at the vigil. What's more, it looks like the Rhodes Solidarity Vigil might have been the first seed planted in a burgeoning "consciousness-raising" movement at Rhodes. There's a core group of students, staff and faculty (myself included) who have committed to keeping the Occupy Movement at the fore, and there's now a Facebook group to keep everyone informed and connected. (If you're a Rhodes alum, you can join the group, too!) I attended the Rhodes Vigil and wrote a short essay on Why I Stood With The Students for this blog. I have high hopes that this might be the beginning of something really great at Rhodes. Our new Wilson Chair of the Humanities, Jonathan Judaken, has arranged to bring Noam Chomsky to campus during the first week of classes and also to organize an ongoing Communities in Conversation series throughout the Spring semester. Small liberal arts colleges like Rhodes are the perfect places to imagine different and better futures. Here's to seeing what our community can imagine!

The New York Tim
es Opinionator (Finally) Recognizes the Awesomeness of Dr. J's Blog
Okay, that may be overstating the matter a bit, but this blog did enjoy a brief moment in the spotlight a few weeks ago after the New York Times linked to my post on "The Philosophy Smoker Controversy" in their Opinionator section. Then, the same post was linked on InsideHigherEd and Jezebel and Gavagi. I really have no idea how in the world my $0.02 got moved up the ranks on this issue, but the viral storm sure was a boon for my blog traffic. And it was my first (and probably last) appearance in the NYT. For what it's worth, I largely disagree with the vitriolic opprobrium directed at Philosophy's so-called "Smoker," though I think it definitely has some fix-able problems, and I outlined as much in my original post. This has been a pretty rough year for professional Philosophy. Not only are we still suffering a truly soul-crushing job market and a tragic under-representation of women and minorities among our ranks, but many of the intra-family fights got downright ugly this year. I suppose there's some good to be found in the momentary distraction that was the Philosophy Smoker Controversy, if only because it gave us a brief reprise from the tired old "who's really doing REAL philosophy?" arguments that plague our profession. That, and I got mentioned in the New York Times. FTW!

Trial Run for Amazing New Music Venue in Memphis
Last Monday night, I went down to visit a new studio that my good friend Ronnie Wright has been building for the last couple of years. It's downtown at 508 S. Main, right on the trolley line and just across the street from the famous Arcade Restaurant and the infamous Ernestine & Hazel's bar. Ronnie has built a state-of-the-art recording studio and intimate performance space, which will host live webcasts on a site called Dittytv. He hosted a laid-back night for musicians and singers on Monday, so I grabbed my friend Chris Pitts (guitarist at Wild Bill's) and we went down to see what there was to see. It was A-MAZ-ING. Chris and I got to do a couple of numbers together (that's us in the picture here). It was one of those nights that I imagine can't happen in many cities other than Memphis. The room was filled with professional and amateur musicians, and everyone was happy to grab an instrument and join in with whatever anyone else wanted to play. True music, true people, true fun and utterly, absolutely, truly Memphis. I don't think you can spit in Memphis without hitting more talent that you would in any other place in the world.

Saying Goodbye To 2011
As I am every Saturday night, I will be at Wild Bill's this coming Saturday night, New Year's Eve, to say goodbye to 2011 and hello to 2012 with good friends, good food, good music and a lot of drinks. (That's me and one of my closest friends in the world, Chris Pitts, performing at Bill's to the left.) I really can't exaggerate how much of a central place this place is to me. When I think back over the best moments I had in 2011-- or any other year I've been in Memphis, for that matter-- the vast majority of them have occurred in the reddish, rocking, drunken glow of Wild Bill's. I'm not at all looking forward to 2012-- I'll be undergoing tenure review next Fall-- so I'm sure I'll be counting on Wild Bill's to deliver the spiritual sustenance that I need to make it through. And I know, without a doubt, that it will deliver. There's going to be a rocking good NYE party at Bill's on Saturday night, so if you happen to be in the River City, stop by and say hello. If you come down to the river, you betcha gonna find some people who live. You don't have to worry 'cause you got no money. People on the river are happy to give.

That's it for the 2011 Year in Dr. J. The next, and final, list is coming shortly: 2011 Year in Pop Culture. Stay tuned.

Finally, for my friends who read this blog, please take the opportunity to say hello and let me know you're still here in the comments. I thank you all for staying with me and this blog. Happy New Year!


Rush Brady said...

Hey Dr. J! Still enjoying the awesomeness!

DOCTOR J said...

Thanks, Rush!

Jonca said...

Hey Dr. J! Still reading and enjoying the blog. Wish you could have been around during my time at Rhodes. Sounds like I would have loved your Philosophy of Race class. Continue the awesomeness in 2012!

MSdos5602 said...

I'm glad to see that not all the bad reputations in the world, especially those of Memphis, are deserved. I love seeing this wide variety of opinions and events- well done!