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A Brief Interview with a Nomadic Transplant(er), Megan Kelly

– interviewed by Blake Sanz

[Note: Blake Sanz is interviewing all writing program faculty. Prior to each interview, Blake asks his colleague to select one of 25 items from a list of artifacts and talk about how they'd use it in teaching. –ed.]

From the list, Megan Kelly chose The Denver Post coverage of occupy Denver.

Maybe it's because Megan Kelly has lived all over the hemisphere that she seems to feel at ease just about anywhere. For our interview, I met her at a bar off Colfax, and even though she arrived at the end of a long day—having taught classes and attended a two-hour lecture on the Occupy movement—she seemed a light spirit. Still, it would be too simple to say that she's used to moving. Maybe it's also that she's grown accustomed to a certain easy way of looking around, a way of thinking about the places she's lived. As a child, Megan lived briefly in California, then went to high school in Panama, then later moved to northern Virginia, and then settled in Seattle for a stint in graduate school before moving to Denver for the job at DU. And yet, as she grew up, the one place that most seemed like home (at least for a while) was southern California, where her grandparents lived, where she and her parents would always return to visit.

But at 28, she moved to Seattle for grad school in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Washington. And it was there, she said, that she finally found a place she could identify with. Many of us cling to where we went to high school or college and think of it as the place most central to who we've become. But for Megan, it's her grad school city, Seattle, that she identifies with. "I did a lot of growing up there in some respects. I felt more at home there than other places I've lived."

Compare her take on Seattle, for example, to her high school experience in Panama: "I definitely have fond memories there, but I left when I graduated, and I never went back until I was in my 30s." And so in Seattle, Megan first got introduced to a set of ideas and people that felt familiar. "I used to say that home was wherever I was, but with Seattle, I really felt connected to the place. I felt a connection to the people there, and I had a lot of significant life experiences there that I think shaped who I am now."

Among those experiences was an introduction to urban gardening, still something Megan closely identifies with now, both for how she uses it in the classroom and where she spends time outside of work. At DU, she gets students to confront questions surrounding the organic foods movement. On her own time, she volunteers with a number of projects related to grassroots gardening. For example, she's a co-leader for Denver Urban Gardens, where she acts as a liaison between the organization and DU students interested in projects related to that field of interest.

Though that curiosity started in Seattle seven years ago, she's keen to how the organic movement has evolved since then. She's able to trace that change in the progression of student attitudes toward it. "At first, there was the food justice movement, and thinking about organic, local fair, real food. That was a new concept for students then. It was all about thinking about why that's important, and learning about these issues. Texts like Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation were fostering student awareness. Back then, the green movement was just beginning to be a part of people's consciousness."

Since 2005, when she discovered this issue, things have changed considerably. "Now, I'd say that most [students] are completely aware of the movement. A new focus of my class, then, is on greenwashing." She explained how some students quickly accept the claims many food companies make about their products. And so, as a teacher, Megan focuses on bringing students to a more critical view of those companies and their ways of advertising.

Concerning her own gardening endeavors, since moving to Denver in 2010, Megan's noticed how different the process can look from one place to another. "Seattle and Denver are very different in terms of weather. The growing season is a lot different, and there are a lot of issues around water. Moving here has made me very aware of water scarcity. Watering a vegetable garden here has very different implications here than in Seattle." For example, in Seattle, she said, you can grow kale year round because it never gets too cold. But in Denver, it's trickier. "You can't grow it here," she starts to say, and then thinks a moment: "But there are ways around that."

It's this do-it-yourself spirit that drives Megan these days. In addition to growing her own vegetables, she also makes her own cleaning products, her own cheese and bread. And behind every such endeavor, there's a well-considered argument that drives her behavior. More than anything, it's this notion of a carefully considered set of interactions with the world that's at the heart of how Megan approaches her life and her teaching.

The List


From The List, Megan chose Denver Post coverage of Occupy Denver, and she spoke about how the movement provides interesting gateways into rhetorical discussions of perspective. "My class is focused on how people experience or witness the same thing, and then explain it or understand it in completely opposing ways." And it's with respect to this notion that she imagines the Post's coverage of Occupy would be interesting. It would provide a perspective she could compare to other ways the movement has been framed. "So, for example, in Denver, there was national coverage of how the police were interacting with the occupiers. I'd want to have students look at how the Post covered it, versus how the Denver Occupy website covers it, versus the national media coverage of that event. And then, there were live streams of the event, too." She sees potential here for students to become aware of how those various lenses affect our perceptions of what really happened, and how we might think about the event's implications.

I asked her if there were any galvanizing images from Occupy Denver that she'd be interested to have students work with. That led us to a discussion of larger memes associated with Occupy. We discussed the Casually-Pepper-Spray-Everything-Cop meme. Those sorts of things, Megan said, raise interesting questions for students to contemplate: "I'd be interested to have them wonder what new understanding we might get of the original [Davis pepper spray] experience or not. And whether or how [the meme] distorts the original experience. Those kinds of things would be interesting to talk about."

Megan's current research project is her dissertation, which has to do with academic libraries and their ways of interacting with composition programs. Given the vast changes in how libraries function now as a result of sweeping technological changes in the past 30 years, she's interested in tracing a history of those interactions.

Her curiosity for this work grew in part out of a love for architecture. She remembers when the Seattle public library was being designed in 2004, when questions were being asked about how the space would be constructed, given that architects now had to consider ways that new technologies might change the demands on a library's use of space.

Megan sees changes in libraries all around: in Seattle, not only did she witness the public library's design and construction, but she has also arrived in Denver at a time when DU's library is being renovated. In addition, there's variation not just in how libraries get literally constructed, but in how composition programs choose to interact with them. As an example, she pointed to a friend of hers who teaches at George Washington. "They're assigned a library liaison like we are [at DU], except that they work much more closely, to the point where they're presenting at conferences together. We typically have one class with our liaisons here to talk about the library. For them, their role is more integrated." And so, she's interested in exploring that level of integration at some institutions, versus schools where those interactions are more limited.

For now, though, her focus is on teaching—hence the 10-hour day this Tuesday. When the interview's done, I turn off the recorder, and we start talking about the bar and our neighborhoods, the things we like about them and the things we don't. We order more beer. We talk some more. Two hours later, we get up to leave, and only then do I realize exactly how long a day Megan has had, but only because I'd asked. The transition from interview to hanging out happened without my even knowing it. She gave no sense of wanting to head home, even though it was now near midnight on a weeknight. Typical of Megan, this would mark just another move from one place of being to another.