A Chronicle Postcard

I wonder if I’m not in the wrong field. A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education has me wondering if I wouldn’t be better off in some sort of manufacturing extension service:

About 15 years ago, an enterprising Garden City faculty member named Gerald Hundley asked local employers what kinds of programs they’d like to see the college offer. It turned out that the food-processing companies that are the mainstays of the economy here needed training for the employees who operate the mammoth refrigeration systems on which their plants rely. For big companies, Mr. Babcock said, “the difference between operating efficiently and inefficiently can be millions a year in electricity and maintenance.”

In 1996 Mr. Hundley established the first program in the U.S. to teach people how to run ammonia-based refrigeration systems safely and economically. He has since retired, but the college now offers more than 40 weeklong training seminars every year that draw employees of major food processors, breweries, juice companies, and even skating rinks.

As I approach that section of the book, I will post more about the excitement, for me, of light industry. I think it’s one of south Louisiana’s strong suits and I think we’re missing the boat if we don’t find ways to nurture it more and encourage people to explore options beyond the oil industry.

Here’s the complete CHE story.


“Wield Your Attention”

Leigh Alexander, a regular writer over at Gamasutra, has an interesting report of an interview with Wolfgang Hammersmith. Hammersmith is Vietnam War veteran who went on to do some Black Ops work — I guess as part of his career in the Marines. He now has a book out, Beyond The Call Of Duty: Gunfight!. Smith, who regularly questions the violent dimension of many video games, draws some interesting points out of Hammersmith, including the following:

A key tenet of Hammersmith’s tactical lessons doesn’t even require a weapon in hand: “Wield your attention,” he advises, elaborating in his book on how crucial it is for individuals to be able to control the sphere of their focus, dealing with immediate circumstances and with a wide-lens view of their environment in a more total fashion. It’s advice that can be applied directly to gun combat, or can be taken abstractly as philosophy and metaphor.

The interview is here.

Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication

The report should probably really be titled “Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: A Really, Really Long Report” but in fact its subtitle is “An Exploration of Faculty Values and Needs in Seven Disciplines.” One of the disciplines profiled is history, which I chose as being closest to my own field of folklore studies. How long is that one report — one of seven, remember? — 115 pages. Brevity, thy name is not Center for Studies in Higher Education.

[Here’s the index page for the whole report.](http://escholarship.org/uc/cshe_fsc)

Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid, and Steve Jobs

[Signal vs. Noise](http://37signals.com/svn/), the weblog of 37signals, has a terrific post up about [Steve Jobs meeting Edwin Land](http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2666-the-story-of-polaroid-inventor-edwin-land-one-of-steve-jobs-biggest-heroes). What I find especially interesting is the account of Land’s sense of “discovery” over “innovation” or “creativity” — see how I put all those words in quotation marks there? They rattle around so much these days they almost feel more like baggage than useful tools for thinking. Anyway, Land is reported to have remarked: “I could see what the Polaroid camera should be. It was just as real to me as if it was sitting in front of me before I had ever built one.” The post has a brief bio of Land that reveals someone who just wouldn’t quit — he worked on one of his earliest inventions by regularly using a lab at Columbia University which he accessed by climbing in through an unlocked window.

Scattered Leaves

Yesterday afternoon my wife came home with what I found to be a rather telling story about the local art scene here in south Louisiana. Her and a friend had taken our combined three children to a nearby small town, which has carved out for itself a small antique and art scene. (There are a couple of these now, and so my obfuscation does leave room for mystery.) The five of them had left a shop and were pausing for a moment to enjoy a courtyard that had a layer of fallen leaves. The kids, being kids, were making the occasional pile out of leaves. The shop’s owner came out to watch what was going on, sighed, and noted quite audibly that she really liked the way the courtyard looked when the leaves were simply scattered by the wind. As if realizing that she had perhaps rebuked the two women, whose children were undoing the scattering, she then described one of her favorite photographs to them: it is of a girl who has thrown leaves up in the air and they are now falling all about her. My wife’s response, and that of her companion as well, was, well, if she had bothered to wait a moment, she would have seen it in action.

Leaves scattered on the ground!

For me, the anecdote captures exactly the strange twilight world of the local arts, and even to some degree the local academic, scene and its relationship to the local landscape and people. The local arts organizations, are very fond of invoking “Cajun” and “Creole” as things that enrich the local arts. Painters and poets draw upon their Cajun roots, or they produce work with a Cajun sensibility, or they capture Cajun folklife authentically.

That is, local arts organizations make much use of Cajun folklife in various ways, but the Cajun they have in mind lives mostly in the pages of books, and most of those books are quite old. The Cajuns they have in mind still make their way about the world on boats, run small cattle ranches, and trundle about the landscape on horses, or perhaps Model T Fords.

When it comes to actual Cajuns, who still tend to be rural and working class, they really don’t have much truck with them. That the farmers and fabricators that are still the economic backbone of this region and who don’t go much for the kind of events hosted by the local art organizations and universities are seen as a kind of drain on how lovely things could be. It helps, of course, that the city’s upper classes hold much the same view, which makes sense because it is these folks who attend local art and university events. They pay top dollar for tickets to see Beausoleil play, and everyone believes that Beausoleil *is* Cajun music. And it is. It’s just that it’s Cajun music for a very small percentage of Cajuns in Louisiana. Out on the prairies, I have met very few people who listen to Beausoleil. A number of folks still listen to Cajun music, but the music they listen to is not an art form, but a dance form, a social form.

Don’t get me wrong. A number of my friends produce some of the most beautiful Cajun music I have ever heard. And it’s Cajun music in as much as they are Cajuns and they made it, but it is not Cajun music in the sense that a large percentage of Cajuns listen to it. Nor is it, sadly, entering into oral tradition and becoming the basis for other innovation — though I could be wrong here, and I really would like to investigate the Lafayette scene to see how the incredibly innovative work here may also have some traditional dynamics.

But the qualification to the above is that it’s the Lafayette scene. It’s bounded. The Lafayette scene is not the Louisiana scene, and the constant conflation of the two is used by local organizations for profit: they sell themselves or the things they produce as the thing itself when they are not. I am sure this dynamic is to be found around the nation, and it’s probably an acceptable fiction by both the local organizations as well as their various funding sources, who probably would hold the actual “folk” at arms distance as well.

As a fiction, it is worth further study, and perhaps that will be my next project. I can imagine something like “Cajuns, Creoles, Cultures, Commodities.” If someone else wants to take the idea and run with it, feel free. I suspect that I am too close to it all to do the topic full justice: I myself belong to the local university. Many of the people involved in both the local arts organizations and the local university are my friends, acquaintances. Some of them, if they ever read this post, will be disturbed, perhaps even upset, by what I have written here. To them, I note that this is meant as critique, in the sense of understanding the work, and not as criticism. I engage in this kind of critique in the firm belief that the local arts and academic organizations find themselves in a status quo which, in fact, undermines their very desire to grow and to become more relevant. If we can unchain ourselves from just a few conventions, then perhaps we can do truly amazing things. If you are going to renovate a house, sometimes you have to remove a wall or two from the existing house.

**UPDATE**: A friend wrote in to note that by my definition of *Cajun* and the logic I pursue above, “Cajun music itself is not Cajun, because, judging from record sales, dancehall attendance and airplay, most Cajuns do not listen to it.” All I have right now are questions — and, who knows, this may be the end of this ling of thinking for me. Questions like: what does it mean for a “folk music” not to have its “folk” base any more? Or not to have it in the usual way — it begs the question of what is “usual.” What is the relationship between folk music and its folk? What happens when the tradition and the group seem to run in parallel?

None of these questions are at all useful to people trying to make a living playing, performing, writing or to the groups — local arts and academic organizations — that try to support them.

And I should be clear: folk music is not my area of expertise. Nor is public folklore. My focus is on creativity, and my current work is with farmers and fabricators.

Autumnal Apology

Every fall things slow down here at JLO. Fall is the season of the new school year, grant applications, the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, and, these days, wondering what higher education will still exist in Louisiana in the following year. For those loyal readers who still check this URL on occasion, there is some material in the pipeline. (I will probably begin sharing pieces of the boat book as it continues to develop.)