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11 Pictures of Jesus Around Me: A Brief Interview with a Once-and-Current Coloradan, Juli Parrish

– 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.]

Juli Parrish chose

One of Juli Parrish's personal projects on arriving to Denver in January 2011 was to meander to as many of its parks as she could. Yes, she wanted to discover her new surroundings, but not just in the way of finding a favorite restaurant or coffee shop. She wanted, literally, to know the land. Sitting down for a chat and a drink with her recently at Kinga's Lounge on Colfax, I got a feel for her journey. "Did you know the city owns its own buffalo herd in Genessee?" she asked. "That's the park system's herd. They've had them since 1914, continuously." And then she tells me a little of the buffaloes' history, their lineage that goes back to a Yellowstone herd.

Such discoveries are one way of re-attuning herself to a city she'd known long before, but in a very different context. Having attended high school in Fort Collins, she'd come to Denver in those days to visit family and friends, and she finds her old memories of that Denver butting up against the new Denver, the one she lives in now. "Well, when I was in high school and even college,Denver was the Tattered Cover (the old one in Cherry Creek), the Cherry Creek biking trail, and then maybe a Mexican restaurant near Evans and Holly (in the suburbs). My experience of it was this very compressed version of the city, separated by endless strip malls and these wide, thruway roads."

And what does she think of it now? "I really like the neighborhoods here. I'll say to my sister, 'Have you been to Park Hill?' And she doesn't even know what that is. And it's just half a mile from where she lives." Such is the odd position Juli finds herself in: the city's not a stranger, but she also doesn't yet feel as home here as a long-time resident. The terrain is still in need of mapping. Hence the parks tour, as a start.

Before coming here, Juli lived and worked in Duluth, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Denver, she's found, is a far cry from that tundra. She seemed ready to revisit that old haunt. One of the stark realities she remembers is its smallness. "In Duluth, I couldn't get a prescription or a bottle of wine or even groceries without running into a student who was working there." She talked, too, about the strange, wondrous aesthetics of Lake Superior in winter. But, while others often remarked on its sublime quality, Juli had a different impression, one that's in line with my Southern sensibilities: "If you're at the lake, some say you have that stark beauty and it feeds the soul—whatever. Truth is, the town is a block of ice from October to June."

And so, even before arriving in Denver, Juli understood what it meant to re-attune, to reset, to find equilibrium.

The List

From The List, Juli picked, a social bookmarking website designed to facilitate interaction with the Internet. It presents users with the home pages of sites related to a set of topics chosen by the user. In choosing it, Juli was especially intrigued by how an experience of the site mirrors the way college students encounter a university. She explained: "So, here's this thing"—StumbleUpon—"that's thrown at them, and they have to figure out what to do with it. I think that's what happens in college a lot. You're confronted with this new thing, and you've got to figure out something to say about it."

She likes the unintended juxtapositions the site creates between websites shown in sequence, and she likes imagining what a student might do with the random assortment of pages that it would show them. "Say you're a student and you're confronted with a political cartoon, and then a wiki entry, and then a new YouTube video, and then a photograph. So, what do you do? What do you do with a set of texts like that? How do you find something, a thread that runs through all of them? And then, how does that let you talk about this set of texts? I think that that's what you have to do in academia—you have this field, and within that field, you're presented with these texts, and you have to find a way to connect these disparate things."

Another aspect of the site that's interesting to her is how it limits the kinds of websites you stumble upon, based on the profile of interests you enter for yourself. "So, I'm choosing to limit what I receive based on what I'm interested in. And I think that [students today] are growing up with that possibility, that they can choose what comes into their view."

And this notion of a self-created filter is at the heart of a potential assignment Juli would create. "If the goal were to talk about that lens, then maybe I could get them to look at their current account, and then set up a ghost account in which they don't limit their interests. And then, maybe they do 12 stumbles for each account, and then compare those results. That could be interesting. What do you see? Is it different? Is it different in an interesting way? Is the juxtaposition worth talking about? And then of course, and most importantly, would an exercise like this teach them something valuable about writing?"

Though she likes the idea, she says she'd worry a bit that DU students wouldn't find the exercise academic enough. This gets at a crucial difference she sees between students she's taught at DU, and students she's taught elsewhere. Additionally, she worries about that age-old favorite line many teachers hear from students: We're just reading too much into it. "Which is closely related to my other least favorite student comeback: 'I don't really have much to say about that.'"

Currently, Juli's working on a paper about contingent faculty issues. Along the lines of discussions the DU Writing Program faculty has had lately, she sees a shift in the field toward fewer tenure-line jobs. And with that shift, she argues, should come other changes. "If the profession as a whole is changing, which it is, and tenure is becoming less available, which it is, and jobs like ours are becoming more popular, then shouldn't we come up with a new nomenclature to talk about that, since our inherited role is at the bottom of this hierarchy? But that shouldn't be, if it's truly a new way of organizing academic labor. Or it could be. I'm trying to find ways to talk about that." And so, she's soon to give a paper on the rhetoric evident in the forums for this topic on the website for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Juli's always been very aware of her surroundings: the land, her jobs, the places she's lived. It struck me in our conversation how she remembered details about certain moments in her life: a strange encounter on a train with a former professor, a drive across the country with her sister, and this: "I did my phone interview for the DU job at my grandmother's house in Pittsburgh, and I remember how there were 11 pictures of Jesus on the walls around me as it went on." For Juli, there's always been that need for attunement, that ability to achieve it. And with Denver and DU and all of the challenges that have come with them, it's clear she's already begun to put that skill to use.