Published: Jan. 21, 2021

January 22, 2021: Chairs and Directors Narrative Are Due to A&S [Arts and Sciences] Personnel

January 22, 2021: Marketing Message on the newest “Not my First Rodeo” post must go out into the world (If that post does not yet exist, this will pose a problem).


An Exhausted Joke That Does Not Give Up

On the banner above, you will see an image of two stones and one bird.

Shouldn’t that be two birds and one stone?

If you are asking that question, then you obviously did not take high school algebra and math analysis in high school in Banning, California.

I believe that teachers of math are disproportionately susceptible to using the phrase, “killing two birds with one stone,” since many things that students learn to do with equations will accomplish two (or more) things at once. So here is my best guess of what happened to our math teacher, Mr. Smithpeter: early in his career in the classroom, he misspoke and said to a class that a particular action would “kill two stones with one bird.”

This apparently struck him as so funny that it never stopped amusing him over the course of his life. Mr. Smithpeter never again used the conventional numbers when mentioning birds and stones. The impact on his students was equally lasting: there are hundreds of us—surprisingly, some with successful careers—who have gone through life referring to the killing of two stones with one bird.

But why would I impose this exhausted joke on readers who deserve better treatment from me?


Two Stones and One Bird Are Recruited into An Innovative Alliance

Every year, the director of a Center must write a narrative report on her activities and achievements, missteps and mishaps, recoveries and reorientations. This report must then be submitted to a Dean or an Associate Dean, who has requested it.

Human societies have conjured up many rituals that initially seem strange, but then come to seem normal and even sensible. The annual self-appraisal offers an impressive and omnipresent demonstration of this evolution. The idea of being required to stop performing a job in order to write at length about the work you were doing, before you stopped doing the work so you could write about it, actually has a certain rounded beauty to it.

The Narrative in which I am to report on my activities as Center of the American West Director in the year 2020, is due this Friday, January 22. In ordinary times, this would require me to put my activities as Center Director on hold while I write this Narrative.

But 2020—and now 2021—meets no one’s definition of “ordinary times.” I have heard it said that the routine and the customary can be very comforting in rough times, but I’m not sure this applied to annual self-evaluations. In fact, it seemed certain that  it was going to feel weird to be writing a narrative about myself in the midst of multiple national crises.

And then there was an added unit of vexation: the Center Director Narrative was due on the very day when my next “Not my First Rodeo” post should be finished and ready to head out into the world.

With that recognition, vexation was suddenly transmuted into inspiration.

It turns out that this coincidence in timing has left me perfectly positioned to kill two stones with one bird, simply by merging my Center Director Narrative with my “Not my First Rodeo” post.

Return to the banner image at the top of this post, and it will now be clear that the stones represent my two simultaneously converging writing tasks. The bird represents me, with a sparrow standing in for me. Initially, I wasn’t sure what bird I wanted as my avatar, but my energetic coworker, Honey Ashenbrenner, solved this puzzle with lightning speed. She consulted the website, where she learned that sparrows stand for “creativity, community, simplicity, and empowerment.”

At that point, the image of the sparrow had triumphed.

Of course, I have no intention of doing any harm to the stones—or to the two writing assignments. On the contrary, my intention, even in this tense and disturbing time, is to have fun with them.

There is only one imaginable objection to this clever move.

The required Director’s Narrative is a personnel document.  Personnel documents are designated as private and confidential, meant for the eyes only of my authority-holding superiors.

And yet this objection quickly delivers us back to contemplating the wondrousness of this innovative merging: I surely have the right to violate my own confidence.

Now for a sudden shift to a serious point: As I know from extensive socializing beyond the walls of universities, the workings of higher education strike many citizens as arcane, esoteric, recondite, and hermetic. If academia is going to enhance its holdings in credibility and influence, an equal enhancement in the transparency of its operations has to come into play.

Everybody ready to enter a new era of academic transparency?

You are now invited and authorized to invade my privacy.

Welcome to the narrative of my life as Faculty Director of the Center of the American West in the year 2020. (An important note:  This may seem like quite a long document, but it could have been worse. I actually left a lot out.)


Rug Removal and Replacement

In mid-March of 2020, in an experience I shared with millions, the rug was pulled out from under me and out from under the organization for which I bear responsibility.

While the Center had many arenas of achievement, the hosting of material, in-person public programs was the activity for which it was most valued and best known.

On March 13, that activity came to a halt. Another major aspect of the Center’s success had rested on the Faculty Director’s omnipresence as a public speaker. That activity also came to a halt.

And then, almost as suddenly, a major undertaking in rug installation took place, and I found myself comfortably situated on a new rug.

As our familiar arena of in-person public programs shut down, another set of arenas—of blog postings, Zoom interviews, and the repositioning of traditional Center activities (like the awarding of the Thompson Prizes for the best writing by students on the American West) on digital platforms—opened up.

So this week’s post, doubling as my Director’s Narrative, tells a tale of sudden rug removal quickly followed by rug replacement.

And here is an extremely important feature of this tale: The Center of the American West served as the Rug Replacement Crew.

This, I know for sure: without the Center staff, with the transformation of our world, I would have made a rough landing on cold, hard concrete.


Life Before the Lockdown

In January, February, and the first half of March, unaware that it was headed for the exit, “the old normal” still thought it was in charge.

The Center had events planned for the coming months. For the Humor Initiative, we had recruited the nation’s most accomplished humor writer, Calvin Trillin, and also the nation’s most unconventional and thought-provoking artist of the comic pages, Jef Mallett, who draws and writes the strip Frazz. For our collaborative series on the history of the Vietnam War (how this series found a base at the Center of the American West is a story I am always eager to retell, if requested), we were set to host the extraordinary Alison Blakely, a Vietnam veteran and noted historian of Russia who I got to know when we served together on the National Council on the Humanities. We were coordinating the second annual Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Lecture, with a gifted and energetic young Western historian, Tiffany Hale, from Barnard College. And on March 12, the very day that the University called a halt to public gatherings, we were scheduled to host one of the Center’s most admired and influential affiliates, former Native American Rights Fund Attorney Walter Echo-Hawk, for a book launching of his novel, Sea of Grass.

Temporarily canceled, all of the events we were planning will take place.

We just don’t know when.

Meanwhile, pre-lockdown, I was zipping around in exuberant “public intellectual” operating mode.

On campus, in a collaboration with the Center for Asian Studies, I commented at a showing of an extremely interesting documentary about a “Western American town” designed and built in China. I took part in a very stimulating panel, hosted by Silicon Flatirons and moderated by Attorney General Phil Weiser, on “Technology Optimism and Pessimism: A Conversation about the Future.” In a tradition I have loved over the years, I spoke in former Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs’ course, “Colorado Legal History,” at the University of Denver. And, in another tradition I have loved, just before the shutdown, I visited the CU Denver film studies course of our brilliant, local film critic, Howie Movshovitz, where he and I engaged in another round of our intense and illuminating conversation about John Ford’s film “The Searchers.”

I also zipped in and out of airports. I went to Santa Monica, where I had the great privilege of interviewing my very accomplished former student, Harvard University History Professor Phil Deloria, in an event sponsored by Zocalo, a Los Angeles cultural institution. I went to Phoenix, where I spoke to a spectacular group of K-12 teachers at the National Classical Education Symposium, convened by the indescribably energetic Dr. Robert Jackson, director of Great Hearts Academies; graciously forgiving me for my complete ignorance of the Greek language, Dr. Jackson let me speak about the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the only such talk ever given by a Western American historian. I went to the University of Oklahoma, where I spoke at an intense and moving conference about the history of immigration, organized by Western historian David Wrobel (now the Dean at that university), whose affiliation with the Center of the American West years ago made it possible for him to meet his wife (the accomplished scholar Janet Ward who taught at CU in days of yore). After I gave my speech in Norman (“Desert Crossings, Carrying Capacities, and Assimilation: Rethinking the History of Immigration”), I then flew home on a plane that was oddly short on passengers. The next day, I gave a talk at the UMC on “Women in the West” to the University Women’s Club, certifiably one of the most receptive and energetic audiences I have encountered in a long and lucky career in public speaking.

In the month before the shutdown, we hosted two visitors for “Academic Skills Repurposing Workshops,” a key feature in our big Mellon Foundation-supported Applied History project. During these three-day visits, young scholars (one per three-day weekend) are situated entirely at the center of my attention, while Valerie Albicker, the coordinator of the Mellon program, and Center managing director Kurt Gutjahr, are with us a good share of the time. As a very close reader of each young historian’s dissertation, I offer a very thorough commentary on 1) strategies and approaches for turning the dissertation into a book; 2) ways to position the book so that it will gain academic recognition and influence other scholars; and 3) a range of possibilities for and contacts with public audiences who would benefit from the young historian’s research. There is much more to be said about these Academic Skills Repurposing Workshops, but I will just add that each of these visits has been an extravagant festival in the mobilization of my contacts and allies, both as test audiences and as participants in one-on-one conversations with the aspiring Applied Historians. (And, not to drop administrative names, but the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences was wonderful in allocating an hour’s conversation to one of the young scholars whose historical research has very direct bearing on the work of climate scientists.)

One last comment: after I spent many years as a maverick (or, perhaps, as an outlier or an anomaly or, really, maybe just a weirdo), support from the Mellon Foundation has provided a validation and ratification of my sense of the vast possibilities and opportunities available to historians. The best validation and ratification have come from the fact that we have had a wonderful response from young historians applying for our “Repurposing Workshops” and for the Mellon-supported Summer Institute, with the talent pool proving to be dazzling. I return again to a tribute to Center staff, who did a spectacular job in making sure that young scholars nationwide learned of the opportunity to apply to our programs.

Returning from the University of Oklahoma, I landed on the evening of March 9, and I have not been to an airport since. Moreover, when I was in the airport in Oklahoma City, I participated in email and phone conversations that led to the recognition that we had to cancel the scheduled visits of young scholars in our “Repurposing Workshops.”

Surrendering the satisfaction of public speaking was a more bearable sacrifice than having to postpone the inestimable pleasure of hosting—and encouraging, coaching, and galvanizing—young historians through the Applied History Academic Skills Repurposing Visits.

But had I actually given up that pleasure?

It certainly seemed that I had.

man unrolling a rug

One Rug Got Pulled Out, and Another Got Installed

We shifted to remote working in mid-March, and the Center’s managing director Kurt Gutjahr soon began convening us in weekly Zoom staff meetings. We discussed the shift of the Center’s introductory course, CAMW 2001, to an online format, and we thought up ways that we could keep the students affiliated with the Center, especially those in our Certificate program, engaged with us.

We also discussed what we could do to replace our robust traditions of public engagement.

In the early days of quarantine, many organizations were creating newsletters. Should we do that? Maybe, but with the cancellation of our usual activities, we were going to be short on news.

Over the years, we had discussed the possibility of my writing a blog. I had been reluctant to take this up for two reasons: first, I was concerned about the commitment of time this would require, and second, I was used to moving carefully— slowly, with many drafts and with many opportunities for second thoughts—before I made any statement in my role as Center Director. But with more reflection, the creation of a blog with regular postings looked like the most effective response to our changed circumstances. A blog could restore the flow of ideas, insights, and stories that has, for decades, connected the Center to its friends and affiliates on campus and in many locales far from the University. Most important, a blog could provide steady and reliable evidence that the cessation of our usual programs did not in any way mean that the Center itself had gone dormant.

Launched on May 1 and with new posts appearing every week, “Not my First Rodeo” has achieved the bedrock goal of conveying unmistakable signs of life from the Center. In the same spirit, “Not my First Rodeo” served as an alternative to or surrogate for the public speeches that had once been such a regular feature in representing the Center in the wider world. They have not only confirmed our ties with many of the people who once attended our programs in person, they have recruited newcomers into our circle. During the winter break, we put “Not my First Rodeo” on pause. But to keep the connection alive, we launched a series of much shorter postings, “Did Anyone Else Notice?” which will continue to appear from time to time. I will not summarize the variety of topics I have covered since May Day, but I will note that, in matters like the exaggerated hopes for the miracle of a rapid national restoration with a Covid-19 vaccine, my capacity for identifying under-noticed problems and reflecting on their solutions and resolutions has exceeded my own expectations.

It is important to repeat the observation that reappears in this statement: the Center staff made this a success. The design and layout of the blog’s format are attractive and inviting. The work of Kurt Gutjahr, Honey Ashenbrenner, Kevin Truong, Kelly Truong, and Quinn Precourt in mobilizing various forms of digital communications and social media, has been vigorous and enterprising. Yes, it is important to have me write lively essays every week. But those essays would have landed more in the genre of diary or journal entries if it had been up to me to find them an audience.

As a channel for connecting the Center to the public, “Not my First Rodeo” teamed up with my monthly column in the Denver Post, a series that began in 2012 and has been uninterrupted since then. In a parallel track of public outreach, journalists and reporters have never slowed down in seeing me as a resource for interviews. (Maybe the most thought-provoking and stimulating of those interviews arose from the discovery of the mysterious obelisk in the Utah Desert!)

Meanwhile, the Center staff led in the creation and presentation of a new form of public interview programs on Zoom: “Lunch with Limerick.” Here, too, success has rested on the work of the Center team. With the help of Brian Bishop, a CU Boulder staffer, Kurt Gutjahr, Honey Ashenbrenner, Lisa Cooper, and Roni Ires figured out how to navigate in the world of Zoom program production and promotion. To say the obvious, if the Center had been forced to wait for me to develop that competency and capability, years would have passed before I acquired the nerve to enter that tricky terrain.

Here is a quick listing of the participants in the “Lunch with Limerick” series: Gus Halas, a corporate turn-around artist, applying his experience to the rescue of the nation; Jim Ogsbury, Executive Director of the Western Governors Association, telling stories of the nation’s premier bipartisan organization of elected officials; Phil Keisling, who served as Secretary of State when Oregon adopted vote-by-mail, and Cameron Blevins, author of a forthcoming book about the history of the Post Office in the American West;  Conevery Bolton Valencius, a professor of history at Boston College and an expert on American attitudes toward illness; Jennifer Ho, the Executive Director of CU’s Center for Humanities and Arts; and Dick Wadhams, former Chairman of the Colorado State Republican Party. These programs have had a solid attendance and generated comments and discussion on campus and beyond. More such programs are in the picture for 2021.

Between Webinars and Zoom, it turned out that my life as a public speaker would resume, albeit at a lessened pace and with the loss of the chance to head off, after the speech, for a festive dinner with my hosts. In 2020, I have given digitally supported speeches to groups ranging from the Colorado Native Plants Association to a set of National Park Service staff assembled for a workshop on the effective communication of expertise, hosted by my very talented friend, Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist; Houston, We Have a Narrative; and, most recently, The Narrative Gym: Introducing the ABT Framework for Messaging and Communication. I have given presentations to classes at Boise State University and Colorado Mesa University. I participated in a number of sessions at the virtual Western History Association Conference. Maybe most enjoyable of all, history professors at the Claremont Colleges in California arranged for me to give a presentation on the Center of the American West’s work in Applied History, an invitation that offered its own testimony that the practices that once marked me as a maverick now serve as an inspiration to innovation in the profession.

This brings us to what may well be the greatest benefit that Zoom has provided to me and the Center: it has sustained the work of our Mellon Applied History program. While we had to cancel our scheduled in-person “Academic Skills Repurposing Workshops,” as well as our planned 2020 Summer Institute, the shift to Zoom proved to make participation in the Mellon program even more inclusive and flexible. In a one-on-one Zoom conversation, my commentary and coaching on how to make the most of the research done for a dissertation may well offer greater value and power than it carried in the sessions when the young scholar and I met in the Center offices. Here, too, the Center staff has played an essential role in making sure that young scholars learn of the opportunities we offer in Applied History. Our Mellon project coordinator Valerie Albicker has scheduled up a storm, arranging for me to meet virtually with the participants who we had formally accepted into the program, while also offering a similar opportunity to, for instance, graduate students and assistant professors who I got to know in the virtual gatherings of the Western History Association convention. We have also planned a series of virtual programs, beginning in February, on the role of creativity in the writing of history. Yale historian Matt Jacobson and I will interview noted historians about their inspired and original practices, with a target audience of young historians eager to consider innovative and energetic ways to direct and present their research.

In 2020, we put Zoom to work for a couple of policy-oriented programs: I served as moderator for a four-part series of panel discussions on the relationship between water and energy (co-sponsored by the Colorado Scientific Society and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science), and also for a pair of programs on viable changes in U.S. immigration policy, bringing Congressman Joe Neguse into conversation with Stanford sociologist Tomás Jiménez and Penn State historian Mary Mendoza.

Various recruitments and new affiliations have also added interest and energy to my computer screen. Governor Jared Polis appointed me to the new Colorado Board of Geographic Naming. I was appointed to the advisory board of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and to the advisory committee for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Institute for Science and Policy, as well as the National Park Service’s planning committee for events commemorating the semiquincentennial (aka, the 250th anniversary) of the founding of the United States. I am a member of the advisory committee planning a documentary on the life of former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. At CU, I became a member of the Advisory Committee for the Masters of the Environment program, a very successful initiative for the education of professionals. In what I believe to be the best development of 2020, Stewart Elliott, the director of CU’s Veteran and Military Affairs (VMA) office, designated me as the VMA’s Campus Partner for Academic Affairs. And I continue to serve on the Benson Center’s Board of Advisors, doing what I can to help in dealing with a challenging situation, in 2020, with the Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy.

In a project that did not miss a beat in 2020, our Indigenous Connections undertaking continued to move forward in making it possible for the staff at Rocky Mountain National Park to provide information and understanding about the tribes whose presence long preceded the creation of the Park. I help out with this endeavor when I am needed, but our Research Fellow Brooke Neely has been the steady force keeping this project moving. And then there’s my role as Principal Scholar for Jim Havey’s film project on “The Five States of Colorado,” exploring the regional diversity within the state. And there is also the great honor of our affiliation with CU Professor Polly McLean and her plans for a documentary, “The Calling,” on the almost-forgotten, spirit-lifting story of the trip taken by notable Coloradans in 1965 to respond to Dr. Martin Luther King’s request for Americans to participate in the civil rights marches in Alabama.

To sum up: Never a dull moment.


The Two Sectors of My Audience, Now Joined

This essay is an adventure in merging two literary genres: my required Director Narrative, and this week’s not-exactly-required-but-still-expected “Not my First Rodeo” post. This has positioned me to address two audiences: the administrators who instructed me to write tis self-evaluation, and the citizens who read “Not my First Rodeo.”

With the next two sections, on contemporary hardships and on political polarization, I invite those two audiences to come together to offer me guidance and coaching on how I can best mobilize the Center’s capital and credibility to the benefit of our very troubled nation.


Bridging the Hardship Divide

I have frequently said I hold the best job on the planet. Given that gift of good fortune, the writing of an annual report has provided me with unmistakable pleasure in reviewing and recounting the previous year’s adventures. In 2020, as in every year before that, my position as Faculty Director of the Center of the American West has offered me wonderful experiences beyond counting (and beyond full recounting).

In 2020, the flow of wonderful experiences continued and even expanded. But the satisfaction and pleasure took place in the context of the misfortune, hardship, suffering, and grief that afflicted millions of others. As Faculty Director of the Center of the American West, I have invested a lot of effort in trying to find ways to communicate across the divides between academics and the public, between conservatives and liberals, between residents of rural areas and residents of urban and suburban areas, between the producers of resources and the consumers of resources, and between people of older generations and people of younger generations.

In 2020, I was forced to recognize that I do not know how to bridge the most important divide of this time: the divide between the afflicted and the not afflicted.

Is there a way I could carry messages between those of us who are doing OK in these terrible times, and the people who have been hit hard by illness, the deaths of friends and relatives, cataclysmic drops in income for small businesses, and unemployment?

Serving as a shuttle diplomat between those groups is something I would be honored to perform. But I don’t know how even to get started.


The Testing of The Center’s Claim to a Productive and Innovative Response to Political Polarization

By the mid-1990s, I was convinced that the nation’s level of political contention was almost beyond bearing.

I had no idea what lay ahead.

Still, I can claim to have happened into adopting the role of the canary (not sparrow) in the mine, sensing trouble on the horizon. After years in the role of the outspoken author of The Legacy of Conquest, unmistakably aligned on the left of the political spectrum, I shifted over to the role of moderator and mediator. A quarter-century ago, I took to repeating a brief summation of this shift: “I used to be contentious and controversial, and then I became congenial and collaborative.” In truth, my transformation was a disappointment to some, but it provided the foundation for my conviction that the Center of the American West could make a difference. The upshot: I have spent years doing my best to use the Center’s programs as a means to convey the message that the nation was willfully heading into a zone of divisiveness that could not be a healthy habitat for its citizens, while asserting that we had other choices and options.

In recent years, political bitterness, resentment, and anger have skyrocketed.

In 2020, I tried to stick with my sense of mission and vocation, even as the tragedy of Covid-19 was configured as another occasion for political antagonism. I have never stopped being grateful that the Center rests on a commitment to bipartisan communication and problem-solving. In December of 2019, we had held the first event in a series called “Bipartisanship (and Friendship) Happen,” with former Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez and former Democratic Congressman and Senator Mark Udall, and we are gearing up to continue that series in a Zoom format. Meanwhile, I am constantly in search of ways to use my public communications to explore routes that lead out of stalemated opposition. I do not feel silenced, which does not mean that I feel effective.

Administrators who are reviewing my Director Narrative and general readers of “Not my First Rodeo,” I am eager to bring you into conversation with each other, into a collaborative exchange to enhance and improve the Center’s strategies for responding to the hardship divide and to the escalation of political antagonism.


A Parable of Overwhelmed Readers

The literary genre known as the “Chairs and Directors Narrative” stands the tiniest chance of whipping up the desperate curiosity supposedly felt by Charles Dickens’ readers almost two centuries ago.

In 1841, readers were consumed with concern for the fate of the character Little Nell in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. In New York, the story went, Americans flocked to the docks to await the arrival of the trans-Atlantic ship that would deliver the novel’s next installment, in which Little Nell would either live or die. As the ship neared the dock, the anxious readers called out to the captain to know Little Nell’s fate.

This is a widely told story—or perhaps I meant “wildly” told story.

Here’s the problem: there is no evidence that this ever happened, and there are various reasons why it could not have happened. (People who never thought they would be interested in such a topic might still be intrigued by the detective work in Carra Glatt’s article, “When Found, Make a Note of: Tracing the Source of a Dickensian Legend,” published in Nineteenth Century Studies, Vol, 23 (2014)).

But here’s the point: it seems unlikely that university administrators nationwide await the seasonal arrival of “Chairs and Directors Narratives” in the manner of those imagined crowds at the New York docks. This leads me to make a statement of warm empathy for the administrators who have, over the years, been the target audience for my annual “Director Narrative.”

If Deans and Associate Deans were to read and ponder every word in reports written at their request, those Deans and Associate Deans would need superbly trained emotional support animals to keep them psychologically moored and anchored through this literary ordeal.

So here is my two-part aspiration: by combining my Director Narrative with the blog post for “Not my First Rodeo” and thereby killing two stones with one bird, I hope I have, first, reduced the cruel burden of solitary readership that has rested for decades, perhaps centuries, on administrators, and, second, provided the occasion for a lively and productive town/gown conversation to discover the best use to make of the Center of the American West in a very troubled time.

New York Harbor, 1841

New York Harbor, 1841

photo of Patty Limerick's signature

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Photo Credit: Banner Rock Images courtesy of: Valerie Albicker

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