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American University Professor, Nancy Kidder, Talks Creative Writing, Combat Sports, & Education


"I do not try and paint this as a rosy picture. And I think that that's part of my class. I tell people in the beginning that there is going to be violence, I can't help that. There is going to be blood. And I also say you don't even have to be a fan of the sport. I actually want some people to kind of give us another perspective, to give us the idea that this is violent, and this is not civil, and we know that there is CTE, how can we ever say this is a safe sport?"

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Here at the 1st Floor Conversations blog we believe in the same guiding principle that the view at the top is only as good as the foundation which preserves it. And in Episode 47, we welcome the incredible, Nancy Kidder.

Nancy is a celebrated writer and professor. In addition to her undergraduate degree from Duke University, her extension certificate in publishing and communications from Harvard Extension School, and her Master's in Creative Writing from American University, Nancy has seven pieces of published work and a thriving career as one of American University's prominent professors.

It is her professorial career that caught my attention as she created and actively teaches one of the most interesting courses I've ever seen – Writing & Fighting – where her students learn to write and analyze through the lens of combat sports. During this course she guides her students through an active discuss and collaboration that touches everything from the boxing ring to the MMA cage, fight culture, race, gender, and the human condition in a sport that juxtaposes unrelenting aggression with heroic fortitude. In this episode, we discuss creative writing, combat sports, as well as higher education. Let's dive in.

Background

Nancy had always found joy in reading and writing and remembered having to be told to "put down the book and go to bed" as a kid, though her path didn't lead her directly to a career as a successful writer and creative writing professor.

Many come to a similar realization as Nancy in that, you do not have to be an entrepreneur to design your dream job. You may need to put in the work and think outside the box though. Nancy is an excellent example of how choosing to be a little "self-centered," and following your passions can lead you to the doorstep of your dream career. You have to put in the work and set aside other people's expectations for the direction of your path.

For Nancy, a passion and developing thirst to explore writing, beyond the Ad Copy of a marketing agency, fueled her desire to turn to higher education for an MFA in creative writing. She attended American University and ultimately went a step further and not only learned rhetoric and creative writing but learned to teach it. All things considered, she realized that teaching "creative writing" in and of itself was not her dream. She truly wanted to make an impact and creative a learning environment where students would be challenges to write, as well as, to think and speak. It was at that moment where Nancy moved her passion for combat sports from the "interest" category to the "subject" category.

How did you become passionate about MMA and combat sports?

Nancy shared that she was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and while discussing her upbringing she reflected on a fond and thrilling memory when James Buster Douglas – a hometown hero and unsung underdog – took on the famed Mike Tyson at a match in Tokyo, Japan.

Neighborhood kids flocked to the Kidder family basement to crowd around the Volkswagen sized television and watched Tyson being put to charge by Douglas on Pay Per View. Nancy reminisces on the history and hype surrounding Ohio State Football, yet she found something even more captivating in boxing and eventually MMA.

So, on that day in 1990, in her parent's basement, as Douglas knocked the guard from the mouth of one of the heavyweight greats, Nancy Kidder became a lifelong lover of the world of combat sports.

What exactly is your course, and how did it materialize?

The combination of Nancy's love for reading, writing, and interest in MMA led her to dive deep into the cultural history of combat sports. She began on a quest to write a piece on Ronda Rousey to capture how women transcended the sport.

She ended up devouring everything from Homer's Iliad to A. J. Liebling to David Remnick's book on Muhammad Ali. Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, showed how race and combat sports are deeply entwined. And the list goes on.

Notably, combat sports have been around for so much of human history that there are fantastic pieces of writing that pre-date television and radio. Sportswriters like Pierce Egan had to use words to paint a picture of the raw brutality, strength, weaknesses, wins, and crushing defeats.

"They had to show the emotion; they had to show the action. I actually think it's a little hyper now if you read Pierce Egan. You'd be like the guy, is shouting in all caps, but it made sense at the time, and I think there was always that part of, especially boxing writing that it had to capture that essence, as well as the story, the narrative."

After reading the great authors in combat sports and realizing, not only does this writing provide the opportunity to learn rhetorical maneuvers, it is a vehicle to discuss race, gender, and the evolution of history, Nancy knew she had the makings of a great course.

MMA & Combat Sports in Today's Society

We can argue whether today's society is more sensitive than ever before or becomes more desensitized through the power and proximity of internet media. But the truth is, combat sports aren't new, MMA is a software upgrade, like IOS 13.4.1. Combat sports have been around. We turn up and down the volume throughout history when it becomes more or less socially acceptable to participate.

In one of his podcasts, Joe Rogan explains that we are only three people away from gladiators. Three ancestors ago, we sat in a coliseum and watched people fight to the death. It's no surprise MMA has taken center cage. Moreover, bare-knuckle boxing has made a return to Wyoming. But, is it less physically damaging than traditional boxing or MMA?


Take football vs. rugby, for example. Watching a football tackle is like watching a superhero take a hit from the Incredible Hulk. They're characters, they have a jersey, they have a mask, but in rugby, much like in UFC or MMA, they are unprotected.


You see hands fly, bones break, and even blood pour. It's raw and uncut. But it all comes down to expectation. People are fully aware they need to defend themselves in MMA and even in rugby without the false sense of security wrapped in padding.

If you understand what's happening in the other sports, you know why it's so much more catastrophic, but we like to play on the surface. We don't want to dig into the weeds. We're just looking at it for face value, which gets back to the importance of the writing material and the communication of the sport.

The Wrap Up

I love that UFC and mixed martial arts give our culture the ability to familiarize ourselves with violence and accept it as an element of the world around us. It allows for the opportunity to witness conflict and understand the respect ingrained in mixed martial arts. Combine that with writing, a non-negotiable skill required to be a contributing member of most functioning societies and find a new way to leverage it to learn about culture, race, diversity, and nationality.

If you take anything away from this conversation - find something you are passionate about, something that's interesting to you, and see if it can be used as a frame to look at something more ubiquitous. There are hundreds if not thousands of writing courses that teach grammar, ethos, pathos, logos, and so forth. The lens of combat sports is what takes this course from one in a million to the one in the million.

It doesn't matter if you agree or disagree, have a full conversation about it, you'll be better at the end of it. Learn to communicate effectively to discover what makes life worth living. Thanks for joining us for episode 47 of the 1st Floor Conversations Podcast, where the thesis is always the same; the view at the top is only as good as the foundation which preserves it.

Are you interested in learning more?

I know I am because Nancy and I could have talked forever!

Go check out Nancy Kidder at https://www.nancyannkidder.com/