Saturday, August 29, 2015

TEDxMemphis Recap

I just got home from a whole day at the first ever TEDxMemphis event-- I say "first" because it looks like plans are already in the works for another one next year (THIS MUST HAPPEN!)-- and I cannot possibly exaggerate what an amazing, informative, inspirational and motivational event it was.  Especially for this city, my city, Memphis, which I love with a passion equal to the love I feel for Philosophy and my own family (not necessarily in that order) and a city which is nothing if not a petri dish chock-full of perfectly-ripe organic culture for growing the completely idiosyncratic and unlikely awesomeness that is, well, #MAF.

First, let me tip ALL MY HATS to the TEDxMemphis team, who did a masterful job of planning and organizing. (Also, thanks y'all for the dope swag-bag!)  Second, I also should note that the $75 ticket price was an unfortunately steep one, likely prohibitive for many people who might have had a lot to contribute and/or gain from an event like this.  I hope, next year, that some effort is made to  fix that.

There were a lot of things shared in today's event that will stick with me for a long while, that I will think about for an even longer while and that will doubtlessly change the way I prioritize my civic, moral and pedagogical/professional commitments over the next year. I was really encouraged to see so many current (Christian Brothers University) students and former (Rhodes College) students in attendance, which gives me hope and confidence that all the scary talk about #901braindrain is overinflated.  There were no vacant seats as far as I could tell in any of the TEDxMemphis sessions today, so for those of you who didn't or couldn't make it, what follows are some highlights (not exhaustiive, not in order of importance or significance, nor in order of presentation, just fyi):


First, from Robert Carter (CIO of FedEx), whose talk was entitled "Connectedness: A Tale of Two Networks." Carter's talk focused on physical, digital and social connections as the fundamental elements of what he called "a thriving population."  The one factoid Carter shared that quite literally stunned me was that nearly a third (32%) of Memphians have NO access to the Internet either at work or at home. This is unconscionable.  Also easily and inexpensively fixable.  I have written a lot on the blog about the "digital divide" and my personal commitment to making "digital literacy" a core component of all of my courses.  Carter's talk has inspired me to make a person pledge to find every possible way I can to diminish our local digital divide in the coming year.  There were a lot of structural inequalities addressed today that need immediate attention-- access to healthy food, medical care, quality education, appropriate remuneration for artistic work-- but (as I frequently tell my students) one can't fix everything, so one must pick the battles you can/want to fight and then FIGHT HARD THERE.  This is where I'm directing my fight in the immediate future.

Melissa Anderson Sweazy-- writer, filmmaker and mother-- ABSOLUTELY KILLED IT in her talk entitled "If You Love Them, Let Them Go: A Hypocrite's Guide To Free-Range Parenting.=," a talk which, if it were not so mind-blowingly awesome, I would have otherwise checked-out of in the first three minutes.  (I should note here by way of explanation that I am not now, and never will be or want to be, a mother.  But I am an educator, so my default-- ahem, enforced-- in loco parentis role with regard to young people made me especially sympathetic to Sweazy's talk.)  Most arresting was her report of the following comparison: in 1915, an average 8-year-old had roughly 6 miles to roam unsupervised.  In 2015, the distance an average 8-year-old roams unsupervised has been reduced to 300 yards. Here's the thing: kids (and grown ppl) NEED ACTUAL SPACE to feel their freedom, to test its limits, to make the sorts of mistakes that permit them to know their freedom is real. Helicopter parents gotta back off, srsly,right now and post haste. As a professor, I'm pledging to do the same. If we're really concerned about young people's safety, let's work on the world itself, not on further drawing in the walls that restrict young people's experience of their agency and independence.

Marco PavĂ©-- rapper, activist, educator (and friend)-- straight-up lowered the BOOM on Memphis' inexcusable inattention to the seriousness of artists and artwork in his talk entitled "Art Entrepreneurship: From Hobbyist to Lobbyist."  There's really too much good to choose from in Marco's sesh, but what really made me sit up and want to shout was when he said "Artists belong in the same conversations as doctors, lawyers and engineers,"  YES. TO. ALL. OF. THAT.  Sometimes, the simplest truths are also the truest truths.  As Marco said in his talk, when we expect artists to show up and play for free, we're basically expecting them to show up and play the fool.  I've made arguments many, many times before on this blog that Memphis city government and Memphians themselves need to quit playing that game like the day before yesterday.  (See here, and here, and hell I even made the documentary film WORKING IN MEMPHIS about it!)  Marco isn't just preaching, though, he's out there hustling and grinding and, most importantly, EDUCATING ARTISTS about their worth and giving them the tools to insist on that worth being respected.  Respected with $$, which is no small measure of respect if you want to pay the MLGW bill, after all.


Kimbal Musk (philanthropist, chef & co-founder of The Kitchen, and recent multi-investor in Memphis) gave a talk entitled "Fertile Ground: Why Food Is The New Internet." Before I sing the praises of his talk, let me first accord Musk the BIG UPS he deserves for his statement, "Obesity is not a barbecue problem," which earned the second-largest applause of the day: (Musk's point was that obesity is largely a phenomenon of the last 30yrs, when we have collectively opted for and consumed industrial food, which Musk describes as "food that makes us both fat and hungry." Memphis has been famous for, and consuming, barbecue for waaayyyy longer than that, ergo, obesity is NOT a "barbecue problem.")  I'm not dispositionally inclined to invest my civic capital in food issues-- not because I don't think they are important issues, but only because (as I noted above) we only have so much capital/interest/energy to invest and food issues are not high on my personal priority list.  That notwithstanding, Musk's basic argument, which was more or less that "real food" is the new Internet, was truly compelling.  And so, as someone fundamentally invested in assuaging the sorts of self-perpetuating structural inequalities that are made real by the digital divide, I found myself unexpectedly swayed by Musk's argument that I really ought pay more attention to the way that fundamentally existential matters (like how and what we have access to eat) are more or less isomorphic with other sociopolitically-determined access issues. In the end, I'm a broke-ass academic, so I can't "invest" or capitalize on the "real food" movement as Musk encouraged... but, hey, I have a captive audience of students whose future earnings will FAR exceed mine, so best to point them in the right direction.  Thanks for  heads-up, Musk.

My first thought, like within less than 3 minutes of Jason Wexler's (COO of the Memphis Grizzlies) TEDxMemphis sesh ("The Social Value of a Sports Franchise") was OMG HOW AM I NOT FRIENDS WITH THIS GUY ALREADY?! Jason's talk executed exactly the right balance between what I sometimes call "big-data-philia" (which I find pathologically reductive and fatuous) and data-driven socio-cultural analysis (which I find tends toward the uncritical and vacuous).  Jason's argument was that "social value" can be measured, specifically by collecting relevant data on the measurable phenomena that make "social connections" valuable and visible.  Fwiw, if I dialed this talk up on my Cable TV Guide, there is exactly zero chance I would have tuned in.  But Wexler  SOLD ME in a way that was not only intellectually rigorous, but also scientifically persuasive and socio-politically compelling.  Perhaps the two most convincing elements of his analyses were (1) the demonstrably isomorphic relationship between Gizzlies' "fan base" and the racial demographic of Memphis and (2) the demonstration that (1) was in part effected by the fact that the Grizzlies' ticket price is one of the most affordable in professional sports.  That is to say, Wexler (and the Grizz organization) is clearly utilizing big-data analyses to maximize not only their surplus value but also their social value. To which I say, #GNG #GoGrizz.

Last but not least, HUGE shout-out to my former colleague at Rhodes College, Loretta Jackson-Hayes--chemist, tireless advocate of the liberal arts and all-around BAMF-- for her talk entitled "STEM Education da Vinci Style."  Loretta is the science colleague that every Humanities faculty dreams about, who understands (as she argued in her TEDxMemphis talk "STEM Education da Vinci Stlye" but also previously in the Washington Post) that current trends in higher education are not only doing a gross inservice to students, but to all the rest of us as well, when it insists on a stark distinction between the goals of so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educational aims and the goals of more broadly considered "liberal arts" educational aims.  Let me be the first and loudest to say THANK GOD (OR WHATEVS) FOR PEOPLE LIKE LORETTA JACKSON-HAYES.  I was lucky enough, while I was still teaching at Rhodes College, to share students with her and I know that the values she espoused today in her TEDxMemphis talk are easily discernible in and pasionately endorsed by her students.  (There is no better measure of a professor's effective influence, imho, than the critical, reflective and, most importantly, voluntary  adoption of his or her principles in the lives and behaviors of his or her students.)  In my imaginary dream world, all STEM educators are like Loretta Jackson-Hayes.  Also, would that it were so.

For the record, there were SO MANY amazing talks and moments today that are not included in these highlights,  I live-tweeted almost the whole day (from Lt.Col. John S. Jackson forward) so if you're interested you can check that out by following me @DrLeighMJohnson.

I'm not including my detailed estimations of what I considered the "lowlights" of today's TEDxMemphis, though I think there were several.  On the whole, it was such a magnificent event.

Okay, but here's one small snark bc I can't help myself.  Cliff Goldmacher, seriously?  Not only NOT a Memphian, but not even a good songwriter, as far as I could tell from the milquetoast blah he served up for a Memphis audience whose ears are trained to hear songs as sonic iterations of real life itself and not, ahem, TaylorSwift-iterations of real people's lives.

No disrespect intended toward any working musician, really, but living and working as a musician in Memphis bears NO RESEMBLANCE WHATSOEVER to Goldmacher's sesh as far as I can tell. And I know a few Memphis musicians.

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