Aubrey Streit Krug at The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival in Kansas, 2017. Photograph by Morgan Spiehs, used with permission.
The thinker-creators gathered here take inspiration from Christina Sharpe’s command that “we must become undisciplined.”1 True to “becoming” rather than “being,” the voices of “Becoming Undisciplined” express ongoingness, incompleteness, even uncertainty. In the form of essays, interviews, self-writing, letters, maps, film, and visual and performance art, these works ask what it means to veer from disciplinary strictures while creating and envisioning change. “Discipline,” as refracted through the contributors’ lenses, comes to mean not only academic departments and fields but also genres, borders, judgment, policing. Most importantly, discipline comes to mean categories and classifications of race, gender, ability, sexuality, and professional status. Despite this variation and our refusal to situate this cluster in one field or even in more capacious rubrics of specific “studies” or “humanities,” common threads emerge. Perhaps none is more prevalent than a sense of imperilment that calls in turn for disassembling the entrenched institutions and values that have created conditions for loss as well as—perhaps—transformation.
— Heather Houser & Stephanie LeMenager
I remember reading a picture book about how people who aren’t from the prairie don’t know wind, sun, or this rolling flat land, full of sighing grasses and traced with cottonwoods along streams and rivers. With defiance and confidence, the narrator explained, “If you’re not from the prairie, you don’t know me.”
The book goes on but that’s the line that struck me as a kid. I grew up in rural Kansas, and I knew school and church, wheat field and pasture, the working landscape of everyday life with a view of the horizon. I didn’t know that those things added up to anything besides ordinary.
The book suggested otherwise. Though it emphasized the realities of weather and labor, there was something magical in its invitation into prairie community. Like other children’s stories that captivated me with doorways into extraordinary worlds, this one made me wonder for years if I could find a portal into this prairie that was apparently all around me. A portal to a place beyond what I knew of the options that were available for my life.
Getting an education was a seemingly safe option that I thought might still help me enter prairie. As an undergrad, I read the place-based literature of new agrarian thinkers who envisioned education as homecoming. I was inspired to choose a graduate program in English that provided access to Great Plains Studies. I hoped for, and got, a chance to ground myself in the region while experimenting with many fields of inquiry across the university, from literature to ecology to anthropology.
I was gaining knowledge through careful repetition and accretion. Making tea and jotting notes through long conversations, with fellow readers and writers, and with book after book. Starting to read the landscape’s history, the lines of settlement and the dynamic layers of persistence. Studying plant names, vegetation types, ecological interactions. Browsing herbarium specimens and helping light prescribed burns. Taking walks, picking off ticks and picking up leaves, and taking students on field trips.
My mentors had helped me see how academic disciplines are maps of knowing that mark paths taken along with routes for the journey ahead and that allow fellow travelers to recognize each other and talk together. They also affirmed other knowledge paths, through and around and outside the academy, valuable palimpsests and powerful possibilities.
My advisor pointed out that if I wanted to better know the Great Plains, I should study a language of this region. That’s how I ended up in an Umóⁿhoⁿ language and culture class. On the first day, all of the students were asked to explain why we had joined the course. Unlike most people, I didn’t have any Omaha or Ponca relatives to describe. I could only say that I hoped to learn prairie in a new way.
Little did I know: knowledge is not just growth. To learn something new and different, to open the door into a world beyond the already known, involves loss too.
Threshold concepts designate the things one must know in order to participate in an academic discipline. These are the key ideas that reshape understanding, the entry points through which one must pass, or the new ways of thinking or feeling or behaving one must acquire. I thank the researchers who offer this framework and describe the process of crossing a threshold as “transformative, integrative, irreversible, and troublesome.”2 It’s a framework that’s relevant beyond academic disciplines as well, for all those paths through and around and outside the academy.
In the Umóⁿhoⁿ class, I entered a threshold. We met on campus in a windowless room, where signs on the walls attuned us to the directions, and we ventured beyond. The Umóⁿhoⁿ know themselves as a people coming into place—Umóⁿhoⁿ describes going “upstream” and “against the current,” recalling their travel up the Mississippi River system3—and our class moved too. Events at the community center, visits to the reservation, making shawls, meetings at the diner, round after round of dropping people off and picking them up, teasing conversations and being corrected on pronunciation and manners: these, too, were the classroom. Through all of this I was starting to sense new ways of thinking, feeling, behaving. I was starting to sense prairie, not just in rural landscapes but also undergirding the region’s cities, as other people’s homelands, as hometowns for more and different humans than me—plus many more-than-human creatures. I was starting to glimpse the inherent tensions in attempts to integrate these layers. But I couldn’t unsee them.
It was troublesome. If it felt like it could change everything, it also felt like the loss of what I thought I knew, drifting away, burning off. I’d thought I was paying attention to prairie, but I’d taken my access to plants and lands and books for granted. I’d thought I was doing something new by getting an education connected to place, but I’d overlooked all the ways my own rural hometown, settled by German Catholic immigrant farmers, had first built my core sense of self. How all places teach a hidden curriculum visible only to those willing to accept that we are being, and have been, taught. If I wanted to enter a portal into a new belonging, I had to let go of the wishful thinking that I alone could imagine something different than what I already knew. Prairie required a dissolving of myself, over and over, into bewildering relationships.
We were cleaning up coffee dishes after a meeting, several years after the first day of class, when an Umóⁿhoⁿ teacher asked me again: why are you doing this, really? It was a gift of a question, and one I continue to receive as I make a life and career on the Great Plains, beyond graduate school. Every time I ask myself what I am doing here, still, another layer of self slips away. Unlearning frees me from myself as I learn to do my work.
Unlearning is messy, not tidy. For me becoming undisciplined is not about being more or less academically disciplined, as if that were the heart of the question. It’s about recognizing what underlies all disciplines, about listening below the common sense surface, about willing participation in and devotion to land communities—in my case grassland communities characterized by perenniality and diversity, deep stability and heart-wrenching change.
Crossing the threshold begins with unlearning. Letting go is a process that goes on and on. Every week it seems another voice arrives to tell me how I am too academically disciplined or not academically disciplined enough. That I care too much about rigorously defining words and structuring analysis based on established and emerging methods, both literary and scientific. That I care too much about improvising and intuiting, sensing others’ feelings, playing with ideas. Or that I don’t care enough.
These voices speak but do not listen. Meanwhile my job is to listen to something else, which, still, I call prairie. After graduation I came back home to Kansas, with joy. Here I try to do my care work in research projects that reach underneath disciplines, to help remember and collaboratively create anew the science, the communities, and the stories of durable human-plant relationships and food systems.
Prairie beckons me not with comfort, but with the grief and beauty that I’ve come to understand is inherent to crossing the threshold toward a truer reality. Prairie is loss and prairie is presence. Again and again, prairie beckons me with movement. Let me tell you about the Mollisol soils both holding on and moving, the ground stirring with wind, sun, and rain. Let me show you the blazing stars and sunflowers in bloom and the grasses bearing seeds.
This is one of nine contributions from the ASAP/J cluster of Becoming Undisciplined. Read the other pieces here.
This cluster is a digital supplement to a print forum in ASAP/Journal 7.1, which you can read here.
- Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 13.
- Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, Ray. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising Within the Disciplines.” In Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice – Ten Years On: Proceedings of the 2002 10th International Symposium Improving Student Learning, edited by Chris Rust, 412-424. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff & Learning Development, 2003.
- Awakuni-Swetland, Mark, Stabler, Vida Woodhull, et al. The Omaha Language and the Omaha Way: An Introduction to Omaha Language and Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018.