Thoughts before daylight on Christmas Day

I cannot say not a creature is stirring. A hard-working Hispanic woman is seeing to breakfast, and an aged custodian is taking care of the grounds here at our lodgings in Fort Worth; but neither Dr. Kelley nor the Ladies have roused as yet. After some sodden days, Christmas Day is dawning clear. And I have coffee. I’m feeling a little loggy from the pimiento cheeseburgers at Kincaid’s yesterday, followed by a family graze with some New Zealand sav, so maybe I’ll push some weights this morning to get moving.

There is good news this morning, as long as I stay away from cable news. First, Dr. Kelley is enjoying a swift recovery from her cataract surgery of the past week and reporting a wonderful improvement in her vision. Which was needed, as I played out on the driving from North Dakota to Texas, and she took over.

Second–and when I sensed this, I made thankful note–I’m feeling a recharge taking hold. The latter half of 2023 has been hard, with medical matters in the family, sickness at home (for man and beast alike), loss of some old friends, a demanding work schedule, and rigorous travel all taking toll. Relaxing in the timbered lobby of Lied Lodge the first night of this expedition, however, I opened my Chromebook (because we never really go off duty) and, instead of checking communications, commenced thinking about the way ahead. I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I’m talking about assessment and re-assessment, resolve, and forging on in the eighth decade of life, with a loyal and true companion alongside me (and sometimes behind me, pushing).

So there at the lodge I closed down the Willow Creek Folk School for 2023 and immediately re-opened it for 2024, with a calendar full of sessions on Friday nights. I’ve gotten some wisdom and encouragement from my wife and from our old friend Ben Kubichta about this and will attend more thoughtfully to the storytelling aspect of the enterprise. At the same time, the canonization implicit in the venture, the establishment of a field of inquiry, is leaping ahead. During snow days last spring, using research done for the folk school, I touched up three article manuscripts detailing the origins of some classic ballads of the Great Plains and sent them out to scholarly journals for review. The response was swift and positive. Two already are in print, and I read proofs on the third before we left home. In the coming year I intend to submit as many or more manuscripts into what I am now referring to as the Genesis Series. The term has a double meaning–dealing with the specific genesis of regional ballads and balladry, and also with the establishment of a twenty-first-century field of inquiry. Stay tuned, friends.

Then, during slack time here in Fort Worth I opened up the course management system, activated my spring term courses, and, believe it or not, commenced work on syllabi! Now, we all know the old jokes about historians and their yellowed lecture notes and their hidebound ways. I take it as a good sign that, in my seventy-second year of life, and entering my fiftieth year in college teaching, I am implementing structural and substantial reforms in the courses. Some of this is reactive–if you have a pulse, you have to respond to the challenges of generative AI–but more of it is a matter of teaching and learning about teaching and learning. Yes, the neoliberal disturbances in education are destructive, and yes, we have to do a lot more with less resources and less respect, and yes, the chickens in the roost are doing too much clucking and not enough laying, but at this point in my life and career, I know what good teaching is, and I’m going to do it. So there. I actually feel good working on course design. Go figure.

These things are gifts. May this Christmas bring you, if not every thing you want, every thing you need, and situate you for a blessed year in 2024.

Thomas D. Isern

Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor, North Dakota State University

4 thoughts on “Stirring

  • December 25, 2023 at 2:33 pm

    I’m starting to think it’s hilarious that every time I push Publish in one of these blog entries, the helpful WpordPress content checker informs me I need to work on my readability. Well, WordPress, you need to work on your customer interface.

  • December 25, 2023 at 4:36 pm

    As a short circuited physicist I am fascinated by time; the passage of which in the present seems slow, but in remembering suddenly becomes a half-century. I am entering my 49th year in the enterprise of medicine. In my own specialty, neonatology, I have been fortunate to journey on that small path of the healing arts since its start which was also 1975. Board certification certificates are numbered in ascending order, mine coming in at #1237. My mentors have certificates in the single and double digits. Some of them grand-fathered in having written the examination we all studied to pass. Neonatologist, me; yes. Perhaps paleonatologist is a better word.

  • December 25, 2023 at 4:42 pm

    You have known a lot about good teaching for some time Tom. I still consider myself blessed for having had the experience of your great NEH seminar. My only regret is that you did not get to hear the young women of Sacred Hearts Academy sing your ballad “They Built With Stone” … it was ethereal and among the moments I cherish. I think you would have been moved. Your influence spreads pretty wide.

  • December 26, 2023 at 2:20 am

    Kind as ever, Joe. Hope it’s been a sweet Christmas for you.


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