Tree Stump Speeches: What Issues are MTSU Students Passionate About?

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

In September 2019, we opened our latest exhibit on Albert Gore, Sr., called The Southern Statesman, near the atrium in James E. Walker Library. It was the fifth major exhibit collaboration between the Gore Center and the library since 2018, but we wanted to try something new this time. Taking advantage of the foot traffic, the exhibit featured a talk-back board.

What is a talk-back board? “A talk-back board is essentially a blank wall or freestanding board with a question printed above in large text. Somewhere within reach, visitors are provided a stack of sticky notes and a few writing utensils,” according to Dr. Josh Howard, MTSU Public History alum.

Our talk-back board featured a large image of Senator Gore speaking atop a tree stump, which is something he was known for on the campaign trail throughout Tennessee. We asked exhibit visitors, “if you were to give a fiery tree stump speech, what would it be about?”

We provided blue, green, and pink post-it notes and black Sharpie markers, and let members of the public anonymously share with us the issues that mattered most to them. Whenever one of our staff members ventured over to the library, they took a couple of photographs to see how the board changed over time. Once the board got full, we took a majority of the post-it notes down and brought them back to the archive to transcribe and analyze. After almost four months, we documented a total of 76 responses.

An example of some of the post-it note responses for the Albert Gore, Sr. talk-back board in Walker Library.

There are a few variables we need to account for before we dive into the analysis. One, there may have been more responses than the 76 we captured. Some sticky notes may have fallen off or been removed, which was one reason we tried to regularly take photographs of the board. We were able to capture a few sticky notes in the images that did not physically end up in our collection. Even though we have 76 responses, the number of people who produced them might be below 76. Comparing handwriting, it seems that some people created more than one sticky note. Finally, the issues represented via the talk-back board cannot necessarily represent the larger MTSU population because we did not poll each individual on campus. The responses are skewed toward those who were library visitors willing to participate. Also, some of these responses may very well be from people unrelated to MTSU since any member from the wider public can visit our library during operating hours.

Screenshot of what the Excel spreadsheet looks like for the Gore talk-back board.

I transcribed each sticky note message and entered the content into an Excel spreadsheet with two additional fields, one that captured the color for each post-it and another for contextual notes. I was curious if one color would reign supreme over another, but the totals were fairly even: 27 green notes, 26 blue, and 23 pink. The notes field was for non-textual content, like drawings of hearts, faces, and arrows pointing to other post-it notes which showed some interaction between responses. I also had a fourth column in which I assigned a general subject term or phrase to each post-it note in order to create a word cloud using tagcrowd.com.

From the data, I created the above word cloud, which shows the frequency of subjects found in the post-it note responses. The environment was the top issue for exhibit visitors with a total of nine post-its, or nearly 12-percent. In a recent Gallup poll, climate change was one of the top ten issues heading into the 2020 presidential election. The second biggest issue for our exhibit visitors was mental health with five post-its, while several subjects were tied for third with four post-its: anti-racism, equality, Jesus, and income inequality. Other notable issues with three post-it notes included gun control, reproductive justice, and disability rights. Of course, there were some humorous or less-serious responses, like “sex, drugs, rock & roll” and “rolled chicken tacos from Taco Bell” (although I am personally very serious about my passion for tacos, too). Overall, there were more than 25 unique issues represented throughout the 76 post-it notes.

This was the first time I have tried something like a talk-back board in my public history career, and, to be honest, I was a little nervous of the outcome. Mainly, I feared that no one would participate at all. Instead, I was overwhelmed with the number and diversity of responses! So, thank you to the True Blue community for your thoughtful (and funny) post-it notes. I think it is no surprise that many of the issues discussed by the MTSU community are also major concerns on a national level, especially as we head into the 2020 presidential campaigns. One way to advocate for the issues you are passionate about is to be an informed citizen and vote in national, state, AND local elections.

Not registered to vote? Find out how you can here. The deadline for registration to vote in the primary is February 3rd.

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