Activating Democratic Practice:

My Reaction to Archival Work at Keene State College and Working with Aspect Magazine

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How fitting and ironic it was to work in the Keene State College Archives. Fitting because an archive itself is an object of democracy. An archive is a collection of historical documents and records, many of those primary sources, that provide differing accounts of the world. Archives are democratic because they are available to the public. Due to the sacristy of the materials in these archives they may be carefully protected, but rather than being thrown away or kept hidden, the materials in archives are open for individuals to explore, dissect, and interpret. What archives hold are proof of various cultural aspects of society throughout time. The work of Dewey, Rich, Whitman, De Toqueville, and the speeches of Williams and Emerson all express that the reading and re-reading of literature, art, and academic works, is imperative to democracy, and the archives provide us with a direct channel to practice it. Ironically, as a third year dweller of this campus and someone who believes wholly in the idea that in order for democracy to function positively we must all be active participants, I was ashamed to find myself in the KSC archives for the first very time.

That leading step into the room excited my senses. I was reminded of my own experiences as a child exploring libraries and office buildings as the scent of ancient dusty paper filled my nose. In the room I could feel my own history and all the history beyond. Immediately I found myself intrigued, wanting to awash myself with every one of the thousands of first-hand accounts from individuals throughout history, those who had maybe stepped foot on the same fields I walk today, or those who caused larger ripples in society in their time. I knew that it was in this room where I could practice democracy with passion, as Terry Tempest Williams asks all scholars to do in her commencement speech “The Open Space of Democracy”  Hearing from the archivists Rodney and Zach about what our archives at KSC held within its walls I could feel an elephant taking up the small space. I wonder if my fellow students felt this. Were others also ashamed that they had not visited the archives, knowing with almost certainty that our peers also had not done so? Were we all reminded of past projects and papers where, if we had taken advantage of this incredibly valuable tool that is right at our fingertips, we could have created much more productive work? Might we have been able to practice democracy more responsibly? I was flooded with the knowledge that I should occupy this space more often in a show of gratitude for my college, for the increasingly available tools like these that can be found all around us in this technological era, that encourage the citizens of America to be more active participants in democracy. Archives give us a straight route to countless sources such as Aspect Magazine, but yet so many of us choose not to participate in the exploration of these sources. Can we truly call ourselves players in creative democracy?

Rather than dwelling, I thought it more useful start making up for these missed opportunities, to thank Rodney and Zach and Professor Long by diving into this archival work, democratic work, and commentating on Aspect Magazine. I wanted now to exercise my right to democracy by developing descriptions of specific issues of the insightful work of Aspect Magazine to be published for others to access for years to come.

Ed Hogan, in creating Aspect, this “little magazine” (magazines usually noncommercial in nature and often committed to certain literary ideals) truly performed an act of creative democracy. The poems, essays, political commentary, and artwork from various unique authors and artists during a specific time period truly brings you into their world. The work of so many who wanted to share art and education is an example of free speech, of the collaborative practice of progressive democracy. What better way is there to investigate American culture, to be able to feel the experiences of others who participated in our democratic society? Reading the poetry felt like reading Adrienne Rich. The experience of reading the experiences of others felt like that ongoing connection that Dewey wants us to recognize. It is connecting experience to social activism. Aspect Magazine is such a hidden gem in the world of art, of democracy, of literature, that if recognized today, can deepen cultural understanding and incentivize others to create anything with similar positive impact.

The issue of Aspect magazine I worked with, and the legacy of it’s creator, Ed Hogan, as an individual as described by so many of those whom he has touched in “Remembering Ed Hogan” (1998), provides me with an archetype of what it looks like to be an individual who makes good use of democracy. Aspect beautifully combines artwork and scholarly work. Not only does this attract a wider array of viewers, assessing the world through academia and art allows for two versions of “truth” to be shared, both holding incredible weight in our understanding of culture, society, history. As Emerson expresses in American Scholar, and similarly to how a fellow classmate of mine, Nick Sharek evaluated Emerson’s piece in his response to it “Creative Scholars” (2017), scholarly work produces factual, historical truth that is researched and defended and art produces an emotional truth, just as important, that may be described as “the truth of the day” (1837). I think too often we separate these two truths, but truly practicing democracy requires, as Dewey would describe in chapter 3 of Art and Experience, “Having an Experience” an esthetic experience, one that involves both personal emotion but is also connected to past and future experiences of yourself and others, to make the experience practical in the progression of the rest of the world. The ability of Aspect to bring readers to experience artwork and scholarly work simultaneously allows the reader to have an esthetic experience.* This, for me, is what makes Aspect so impressive. Although I attempt in the writing of my blog and in my philosophy of teaching to provide for this type of experience, I have hopes of one day cultivating such a project as Hogan; something that is public and accessible to so many, something that allows one to experience art and academia together. Providing more individuals with this opportunity, to my thinking, will cause more people to practice democracy in an effective way.

*For more information and thoughts on esthetic experiences, look to my previous post “Experience and Constructivism in Education” that discusses some of Dewey’s work.

Sources

Hogan, Edward J. ;Link, Ellen; Kistner, M.K.; Black, Lawrence; Anderson, Sally S.; Dominguez, Paul; Schalit, Robert; Porter, Ed; Hahn, John; Hamilton, Fritz; Sanford, Geraldine; Latta, Richard; Combellick, Henry; Zar, Rubin; Nasta, Anthony P.; Ward, Lynd; and McTernan (Student Commentator), Kerrin, “Aspect Magazine vol. 8, issue 46-7, December-January, 1972-3” (1972-3). Aspect Magazine. 

https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0BzA66xFH3zcCQzJtdFZnbjdjc3M

In Consequence of Literature:

I Become The American Scholar, The Poet.

The american scholar inherently understands there is no end. May this knowledge be both the devil and the angel on their shoulder.

For the instinct of the american scholar is to experience all, evaluate old, and create new. Emerson himself said, “The American scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.”

The visceral american scholar will find themselves with an intimate knowledge of society that compounded can incite such a distaste they may be derailed from their pursuance of purpose.

The Poetry

So interrogative of society, it is overwhelming.

I am hamstrung.

Struggling as I read through the commencement speeches of Emerson and Terry Tempest Williams.

Several samples committed to me immense stimulation.

Awash in the questions that do, indeed, Williams, keep me awake at night.

In reading these I am thrown into my life’s work.

But for homework, I must write.

So, yes, Emerson, here I am reading with the intention to write.

And yes, Emerson, as I am “braced by labor and invention” the words I read carry much more weight.

I read here of american scholars.

And here, I identify.

The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy… In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, — happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns, that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds.  (American Scholar 1837)

You were not interested in ideas or language that polarized people: Christianity vs. Islam; Republicans vs. Democrats; wilderness vs. development. You wanted to talk about alternatives, solutions, how to speak a language that opens hearts rather than closes them. You were acutely aware of the complexities and hesitant to take sides before considering all the evidence before you… an educated mind is an empathetic mind. (University of Utah 2003 Commencement Address by Terry Tempest Williams)

In these speeches I come upon solace.

Meanwhile the embers of my being stirred.

I am the American Scholar.

The scholar of Emerson.

Of Williams.

And I am white middle class woman.

In 2017,

Not 1837,

Not 2003.

But still, these words inspire.

In darkness, an epiphany.

And when things don’t go as planned, patience and perseverance are required. Trust. Stay open. Suddenly, a surprise appears. Something you never could have imagined. (University of Utah 2003 Commencement Address by Terry Tempest Williams)

These convocation speeches, a remedy.

So much of the literature I read, remedies.

Because these words are emblematic of who I am.

I am american scholar.

I am philosopher.

And educator.

And historian.

And activist.

And empath.

I am responsive citizen, Williams.

I am Man Thinking, Emerson.

Emerson,

Is it true?

Shall it be upon us intellectuals to continue to read; to be inspired?

To write; create?

And will I contribute to the next chapter of the American Scholar’s biography?

Or to the next celebration for the survival of literature?

Yes, Williams, something in me has been set in motion.

No, there is no end for the american academic, what an encumbrance!

But there are infinite new beginnings.

And yes, Williams, this is the gift of education.

Sources

“The American scholar – The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Complete Works of RWE. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson – RWE.org, 19 Dec. 2004. Web. Feb. 2017. http://www.rwe.org/the-american-scholar/

“University of Utah 2003 commencement address by Terry Tempest Williams.” archive.unews.utah.edu. 2003. Web. Feb. 2017. http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/university-of-utah-2003-commencement-address-by-terry-tempest-williams/