Did YOU Have to Explain ‘Blossom’ to Your Students Today?

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In case any of you were wondering, yes my PhD is hard at work, discussing the dated early-career arc of Joey Lawrence to a group of confused students in my Population Geography class. Let me backtrack and explain how it came to this.

The University of Tennessee opened a 1906 time capsule left entombed somewhere in the Estabrook Building, one of my favorites on campus (and slated for demolition). I watched it on their Facebook Live video feed with my Population Geography students before they took their final exam this morning. I also paid attention the livestream of comments, which were a heady mixture of demands they stop blabbing and open it already, self-deprecating “jokes” about Tennessee Football, and (after they opened it and found… desiccated nothing) righteous anger and Geraldo Rivera references.

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They historians on hand, including my colleague Bob Hutton (who would no doubt appreciate that last link), did a great job recovering from the disappointment. They had a comprehensive catalog of the items the 1906 crew left in the buried box, most of which had been preserved lovingly in the UT Archives behind them. They also took this opportunity to reiterate the value of well-maintained and funded archives, a sentiment upon which I’ve doubled down on multiple occasions.

Another curious byproduct of this experience was the seemingly inevitable reminscing about the Nickelodeon time capsule, which Mike O’Malley and Joey Lawrence buried in Orlando, on live television, on April 30, 1992. It was moved when Nickelodeon studios moved in 2005, but it is still slated to be opened on April 30, 2042 – fifty years to the day after it was buried.

The first epiphany I had was that 1992 was 26 years ago. 2042 is in 24 years. Society is more than halfway to the finish line of waiting to unearth this sealed box of early 90’s ephemera, most of which is readily available in thrift stores and vintage shops. Popular movies on VHS. An Orlando-distributed issue of TV Guide with Burt Reynolds on the cover. A hat embroidered with “WHOA! ’92” in honor of Joey Lawrence, then at the height of his teenybopper fame.

The latter item made me and an older student in my class (three years my junior) laugh out loud. When I saw the younger students looking on in confusion, I informed them that once upon a time, there was a show called Blossom that helped catapult their teenage cast to fame. I never watched the show, so I forgot that it starred Mayim Bialik , who is still incredibly famous as a star on The Big Bang Theory, perhaps the worst and most culturally caustic show ever produced (not a personal knock on Bialik by any means).

gi_153511_green20gak20lo20resIt’s impossible to predict these things, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the video camera they put into the capsule (after being unable to eject the tape) wound up being the most valuable thing upon unearthing in 2042. That, or the Barbie Doll in it’s original packaging. Or, maybe even the tube of Gak, a sticky slime compound cross-promoted with Nickelodeon shows whose name, somehow, functions as a stand-in for cocaine. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, in conclusion, time is like sands through the hourglass; I fear I may blink and it may be time for Mike O’Malley’s great-grandson to crack open that thing LIVE on YouComvrizoncasTube Mentalscreen Googlevision. There are more important lessons here, though, which can be applied to our experience from today. First, keep your archives funded and well-maintained by enthusiastic historians and lovers of material culture. Second, whenever your university gives you the opportunity, pull up a local Livestream to watch with your students. It may pull everyone on board, even temporarily, with campus civic life, and you never know what cultural revelation you may find, even if the capsule is empty.

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My Classes for Summer Session I (May 31 – July 6)

I’m pleased to announce that I will be teaching a pair of classes for Session I (May 31 through July 6th) at UTK this Summer. They will be GEOG 344 (Population Geography), which I taught this past Fall, and GEOG 361 (Regional Dynamics of the US and Canada), which I’ve never taught.

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I’ll copy and paste the description I originally posted late last summer in anticipation of Population Geography:

Earth’s population is at a point now where it’s (1) impossible to ignore the effects of the Anthropocene and (2) at a general tipping point in terms of humanity, resources, and our role as active agents in the Earth’s reproduction. Also, to phrase it less academically, 7 BILLION PEOPLE DEAR GOD HOW DID THIS HAPPEN!? This class effectively answers that question and discusses this crucial crossroads at which the human race has found itself. We will be discussing population science and why humans do the crazy things they do just to survive depending on their place in the world.


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How does one advertise a class about something so broad as “regional dynamics?” Well, one uses food, of course. No barometer of regional culture, particularly noctural, is more universally appealing. I made sure to include options here that were vegetarian and vegan in addition to the sheer excesses of a couple. Can you identify all of the foods pictured here? From the top, we have a plate of street tacos, found all over North America (anywhere lucky to have a reasonable taco truck, at least). Next down is doubles, a wonderful Trinidadian street food found in Caribbean-heavy regions like South Florida and (hopefully) Gulf Coast cities like New Orleans…this April. (Full disclosure: I haven’t had doubles since being in San Fernando two years ago this week and I’m seriously overdue for some). Next down, you see a pile of poutine, served uncharacteristically on a plate and not in a box or some kind of hutch out of a trailer in downtown Montreal, but I will let that slide. Next, a Los Angeles street dog, piled high with roasted peppers and onions as only several dozen of LA’s best sidewalk sausage roasters can roast them. They taste especially fantastic wandering out of a show in Echo Park or a game at Dodger Stadium. Last but not least, there’s a full cheese pizza from Pepe’s in New Haven, captured in the brief moment when it lands on a table before being pulled apart mercilessly by the consumers. Each of them will inhale piece after piece, wondering why time seems to be standing still. Before they even notice how much pizza they’ve eaten, it’s gone, just a pile of grease and charred dough flakes lining the wax paper, remnants that suggest there was once a large pizza in that spot. So ends a typical scene in North America’s greatest pizzeria, a mere twenty-minute walk from Modern Apizza, North America’s second-greatest pizzeria (but where you’ll probably get a table faster).

Anyway, take GEOG 361 if you’re around for the summer session, and we’ll talk about regional street foods as well as many other exhaustively researched cultural geographies.

GeoSym 2018 Call for Papers!

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I’m very excited to pass along the Call for Papers for the third installment of this great little conference. I’m biased because I was the chair for the second installment in 2016, but this time around it’s in great hands with my good friends and colleagues Savannah Collins-Key, Emma Walcott-Wilson, and others from the GeoGrads. Savannah was an outstanding co-chair in 2016, too; I’ve gone on record before about all the work she did organizing the paper sessions and basically ensuring that I didn’t burn the whole thing down.

Also, this year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Marshall Shepherd, is one of the biggest authorities on climate and landscape in the Southeast. His name has been getting bigger on a near-monthly basis in the meteorology and Weather Channel world, so you really don’t want to miss the chance to see him speak in this smaller-scale setting.

At any rate, it’s free to submit and participate (a rarity among any kind of academic conference), and you have the rest of December to get your papers ready. Paper deadline is January 1st, 2018, and the Poster deadline is January 15th. More information can be found at the departmental website here or on the Facebook Page here.

Checking in Again with the Farragut Hotel

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A little over a year ago, I joined Knox Heritage so I could attend an open house of the under-extreme-renovation-at-the-time Farragut Hotel building in downtown Knoxville. I hadn’t been able to track down any of the hotel’s official records from 1938 and 1940, the two occasions I have evidence to believe that Ben Irving stayed there. The work that the contractors and development company had been doing, even at that point, was pretty astounding.

A few Fridays back, many of us had the rare opportunity to do another walk-through. It was impressive how much progress had been made. One of my favorite points that owner Rick Dover mentioned was that, although they were building a full kitchen for a morning breakfast buffet, the new Farragut would not have an in-house restaurant. There are too many great restaurants within walking distance, and they were encouraging guests to actually get to know the city around the hotel – a sentiment I can get behind. Here are some photos from the visit.

 

The building’s official re-opening as the Hyatt Place at the Historic Farragut Hotel is slated to be weeks away, which means that workers are scrambling to get all the holes filled and everything else in working order as I type this. The Knoxville News-Sentinel interviewed the new General Manager (who moved his family from Austin to come and run the show) and gave a pretty good bullet-point history of the building on their site here.

Ben Irving Visits Historic Westwood Tomorrow (9/15) at Noon

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I’ll be bringing my presentation about the life and somewhat-unintentional legacy of Ben Irving (and our collective digital heritage) to Knox Heritage tomorrow for their ‘Lost & Found Luncheon’ series. This will be my first time presenting about Irving in Knoxville since I presented a (heavily truncated) version of the talk at Pecha Kucha last November, and my first time presenting the full version since Western MA last Thanksgiving. I’m very excited to bring this to Historic Westwood.

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More info on the event is available at their website, which I’ll paste below. You can also RSVP to the Facebook event, which I found just now.

Lunch is available on a first-come, first-served basis at 11:30 a.m. The talk will begin promptly at noon. Please RSVP to Hollie Cook at hcook@knoxheritage.org or at 865-523-8008. FREE. ALL ARE WELCOME.

Catching Up with the Farragut Hotel

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I took this when I walked by the site on Wednesday afternoon, mostly because of the shiny new “Coming Fall 2017” Hyatt banner.

I can’t remember how much I’ve covered the Farragut Hotel and its intersection with the Ben Irving Postcard Project, but from what I can tell, he stayed there at least once in 1935 and then possibly again in 1940. That’s really all I could ascertain from the notes and the dates on the cards.

Regarding the development’s news, the Knoxville News Sentinel published this article last year about the official development plans, which stated their plan was to reopen during the summer of 2017. So, knowing the pace of development in Knoxville, I looked forward to being able to see their finished product in late 2019.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the project as it currently sits when Knox Heritage had a special event there last Fall. I took several pictures while wandering around the construction site and I never did anything with them in October, so I figured I would post some highlights here. Forgive any unintentional trespassing I may have done.

Knox Heritage has been teasing a follow-up event where their members will get a free preview of the hotel when it’s ready to officially reopen this fall. I’ll do my best to recreate these photos, but I can’t make any promises with the ones of gigantic death-hazard holes. I imagine they’ll patch those up.

Recommended Reading on Music Streaming and Data Mining (Robert Prey)

‘Musica Analytica: The Datafication of Listening’
by Robert Prey

If you know me, you probably find it as no surprise that Knoxville has made me prouder in the last 72 hours than it has in the three years I’ve lived here. I would expect some form of solidarity in uncertain times, but I never imagined it would be quite like this. Not to minimize the efforts of the millions who marched around the country and world today, but I know you didn’t come to this site to read my thoughts on those issues (not directly, anyway… plus, if you are anywhere near a device capable of accessing the internet, you’re probably fairly caught up by this point). I just wanted to include that preface to acknowledge the gravity of the times before changing tracks to sharing a great recent chapter on… [ready?] streaming music.

On one of many great tracks from his latest album, Jeff Rosenstock (ex-Bomb the Music Industry!) sings

Born as a data mine for targeted marketing,
and no one will listen up
until you become a hashtag or a meme
but hate’s not a fad that dies with its virality.
They want you to be a ghost
when they rob you of your hope,
but you’ve got power when they’re not expecting anything.

Rosenstock is (finally) well-known (enough) for his iconoclastic approach to making, marketing and selling music, so him singing about frustration over the squandered potential of social media is nothing surprising. But that first line is particularly biting, especially since few people in the developed world exist outside of that matrix, and the ones who were too old to embrace social media have been dying out. Tell me the idea of being a “data mine” from birth doesn’t make you shiver at least a little bit. But, here we are.

Anyway, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others have undergone heady analysis from social scientists and independent marketing firms. This chapter by Richard Prey in the new book Networked Music Cultures (link up above, citation down below) presents a new window into the data mining that’s become inextricable from streaming music listening. I’m not too familiar with Prey’s work, but he begins the chapter with an anecdote about Theodor Adorno, whose name you cannot have a single philosophical discussion about music, film, or television without mentioning at some point.

He goes onto pick apart how Spotify and Pandora manicure their profiles on users, which includes both individual listeners and businesses. So many shops, doctors’ offices, and eateries have actually dumped commercial radio in favor of Spotify and Pandora that it’s strange that Clearchannel and other corporate interests that have ruined consolidated radio haven’t mounted a more visible campaign against them (then again, I could be overlooking something).

If I had more time to flesh out my thoughts, I would provide a more comprehensive list of everything I dislike about streaming music. Aside from their tacit devaluing of music, their abject disregard for audio quality, and an even more insidious brainwashing of consumers into guilt-tripping other consumers for actually spending money on music (that sociological “Apple effect” is the worst one for me, honestly), Prey’s chapter provides a great overview of how Spotify, Pandora, and similar services integrate something as enjoyable as listening to (and discovering, on occasion) music into the data mining superstructure. How prescient Adorno’s rantings about “the culture industry” were. Enjoy the chapter and feel free to pass it along when someone looks at you funny and asks you why you don’t use Spotify.

Also, I’m aware of the irony of me posting this on various formats of social media in order to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out.

Prey, R. (2016). Musica Analytica: The Datafication of Listening.In Nowak, R., & Whelan, A. (Eds.) Networked Music Cultures (pp. 31-48).Palgrave Macmillan UK.