One week down…

One week down…

…a bunch more to go. The semester’s off to a good start, I think. There’ve not yet been any fireworks in either order theory or voting theory, but as we tread closer to Duverger’s Law and Arrow’s Theorem, the latter will likely light up, and the students begin presenting solutions to problems in the former, so there’ll be some excitement there, too.

My order theory class hit a little bump when I realized that a couple of the students in the class have not taken our intro to proofs course; though I’d advertised MATH 280 as a prereq, I don’t think I listed 280 as a formal prerequisite, so a few folks signed up for more than they might be able to handle.

Meanwhile, today in voting theory we examined paradoxical electoral outcomes, outcomes in which the will of the people (as expressed by individual voter preferences) is clearly misaggregated into a “flawed” social preference as determined by the electoral process. (The featured image above shows the students’ successful attempt at “breaking” the “count the A-grades” electoral system mentioned by Donald Saari on page 20 of his book Chaotic Elections!.) Having spent the first two classes designing their own electoral systems and running mock elections according to those systems, their next task is to “break” one another’s systems by showing that paradoxical outcomes are possible no matter the choice of system.

I think the most exciting goings-on this past week came outside of class:

  • I’ve met (in several different settings) Sidney, the new director of our service-learning center. He seems authentic, engaged, down-to-earth, and appreciative of our campus culture surrounding service-learning and community engagement. I think I’ll enjoy working with him. He and Tish, the woman who’s been tapped to oversee several programs that deal with the university’s engagement with the community, invited me to join them at a two-day Campus Compact “action planning” institute coming up in a few weeks in Princeton, NJ. Should be fun!
  • I’ve been in correspondence with the heritage preservation officer for the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society regarding the phenomenon of urban renewal in Helena, Montana, my hometown. After revisiting a wesbite I discovered when looking at urban renewal in Helena the first time I taught Cultivating Global Citizenship, and after spending a few hours working on a poem about the old Chinese masonic temple that once stood in Helena (in the 1870s, Helena’s population was roughly 1/5 Chinese!), I contacted Queshia, asking for more information on an exhibit I’d seen referenced a few times in the literature I was able to find online. She responded very quickly and excitedly, sending me several large files full of digitized documents that relate to that exhibit. I’ve yet to look them over, but I hope to have some good time to do so this weekend!
  • Relatedly, I’ve begun talking with a few folks (including Candace and Doreen) about teaching a course on urban renewal here at UNCA…maybe team-teaching with someone who has more of an idea of what they’re talking about…? I know some folks in History and PoliSci who’d be all upons. Meanwhile, Candace’s current first-year writing class is based on the theme “deconstructing Asheville”: she’s asking her students to critically examine Asheville’s national reputation as a tourist mecca, a foodtopia, a thriving arts and crafts community, a jade-green jewel of an outdoors community where everyone drinks good beer and poops out sweet-smelling shit. While the haves are quaffing craft brews from the comfort of their kayaks, Asheville’s working-class community is struggling to get by in a sprawling food desert plagued by tremendous income inequality and inadequate affordable housing. Just today we’ve begun thinking about linking her first-year writing course with a first-year seminar on urban renewal…could we make that work…?
  • In administrative news…I presented the idea of moving toward a letter-grade-free curriculum in the Honors Program to the members of the Honors Program Advisory Committee. There was tentative support from some and tentative resistance from others…just as to be expected, I think. I’ve only just begun to think about this move, and I’m sure the coming weeks will see much more work on that project. The advisory committee unanimously signed off on a proposed alternative recognition for Honors students who cannot meet the somewhat stringent requirements for Distinction as a University Scholar, the greatest recognition we grant for participation in our program. Many transfer students simply cannot complete the 21 hours of Honors coursework required of them before graduating, and I want to do all that I can to encourage greater involvement of such students in the program. “Recognition as an Honors Scholar” will require the student to complete only 12 hours in the program, and I hope this honor will encourage more transfer students (and others!) to apply for and take part in the program.

I could go on and on (it’s been a busy week!)…about my school’s move to require all new lecturers to teach 16 hours per term (instead of the usual 12)…about last night’s very well-attended reception for first-year Honors students…about the fact that roughly 90% of that group of students is female (an even more uneven distribution than usual)…about the wonderful work my Student Honors Advisory Committee is doing in mentoring first-year students and putting together outstanding social and academic programming…but I’ll leave it there.

Much more to come!

Day One, v. 19.0

Day One, v. 19.0

Today is the first day of classes of my 19th year of teaching at the college level (kinda…I’m not counting TAing for a few classes as a masters student at the University of Denver). I’m still nervous (always am), but not as much as in the past. I feel…ready…? I guess…?

For the first time in…ever, I think…?…I’ve got a three-day-a-week schedule, both of my actual classes meeting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m sure this means that Tuesdays and Thursdays will be completely fr offer big chunks of time for resea quickly fill up with meetings. But for now, it’s looking pretty manageable.

Today’s order theory class is going to start off with some basic exploration of the idea of order and some play with Hasse diagrams. Meanwhile, in voting theory the students are going to be asked to invent and implement “ideally just” voting systems in order to hold an election for their favorite among several ice cream flavors; it’s a noncontroversial way to start off what’s sure to be a contentious semester.

Let me close this post with an anecdote about my favorite first day of class ever, opening day for the first-semester calculus course I taught as a grad student at Vanderbilt in the fall of 1999: I was young enough then to pass for one of the undergrads in the class (still there but for a few (thousand) grays hairs and prominent crow’s feet), and I took advantage of this by showing up early enough for the eight-o’clock class to be sure of getting there first, taking a seat in the middle of the room and not at the front.

About five minutes after I got there, the first actual enrollee arrive, a young woman whose name I still remember. Belinda (let’s call her) was bubbly and outgoing and kind. She brightly introduced herself to me, and we chatted for a bit until the next students arrived. As each new person entered the room, Belinda introduced herself to them, and her welcome helped everyone else feel at ease and fall into a pleasant conversation. (It also helped me to learn everyone’s names; this was back before I had an electronic list, with pictures, ahead of time.)

The bell rang (yes, we really had a bell in Stevenson Center) and the class fell silent. Where was the teacher? Everyone looked around at one another, squirming slightly in their seats. “Um…what now?” the students began to ask. “Like, how long do we have to wait?”

After two or three minutes, by which time I worried people were going to start to get up and go, I stood, sighing, and slung my stuff on the table at the front of the room. “I guess I’ll go ahead and take it over.” There was laughter. Poor Belinda turned a bright, bright red. (Unsurprisingly, she would end up being one of the best students in the class.)

I think it was the following term that I pretended that I had arrived to teach an introductory Hebrew course (and not Calc II). I don’t remember any of my other pranks, but I’m pretty sure I pulled one at the start of every semester for a couple of years. It’s been a while.

Maybe I should try that again? Except I already know about three quarters of the students in both of my classes this term…

To all of you beginning a fresh new year today, best of luck! Learn a lot, don’t agonize over grades, and be well with one another. We’re all here for the same reason.

 

Stonecatching

Stonecatching

It’s been a fast summer, and one that’s certainly not slowed down as it’s neared its end. Next Monday, I begin my twelfth year of teaching at UNCA, and my eleventh since starting this blog back in the summer of 2006.

In many ways, this past week has been a microscopic version of those years.

Last Thursday and Friday I spent a couple of days with a few dozen colleagues at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. I’d been invited to give the keynote presentation and lead a few brief workshops for their second annual writing-in-the-disciplines faculty development program. Working with, and simply being with, faculty from biology, sociology, nursing, history, chemistry, mathematics, and all other corners of their campus, every one of whom was excited about writing in their disciplines, was enlightening and invigorating. Their school, newly added to the COPLAC roster of officially-designated public liberal arts colleges,  is very much like my own, and it was heartening to hear of successes and struggles that closely mirrored those at my campus. It was a lovely visit.

On Friday evening, I learned that the article my colleague (and partner in consciousness-raising crime) Samuel and I wrote on the workshop project we ask our HON 478 students to complete was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Honors in Practice, after spending roughly two weeks in review and receiving glowing feedback from its referees. I’m excited that this project, which we’re convinced has now helped over a hundred bright young students more fully form their thoughts about diversity, equity, and inclusion, may have an impact off of our campus.

Yesterday, Dorothy (the new Honors Program assistant) and I met for a short while with three colleagues who help me out as members of the Honors Program Advisory Committee. We talked about how we can structure interviews with prospective Honors students to allow them an opportunity to demonstrate academic excellence in nontraditional ways. We talked about how we can make more flexible (and less strictly dependent upon GPA) the means by which Honors students remain in good standing in the program. We talked, very positively, about the possibility of using the program as a place to pilot letter-grade-free classes, something I’d very much like to explore campus-wide during the next stage in my career.

And today I finished reading a wonderful book my colleague Doreen recommended to me, Bryan Stevenson’s Just mercy: A story of justice and redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014). The “story” that Stevenson, a very successful civil rights attorney, tells is one of advocacy for some of our society’s most vulnerable members, namely its death-row inmates. For three hundred pages he recounts case after case of inequity and injustice in our criminal justice system, arguing persuasively in support of the felons he and his friends have defended for nearly three decades now. “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?” (p.288) he asks, about our treatment of the mentally ill, the intellectually challenged, the abused, the neglected, the merely adolescent who find their ways into our nation’s overcrowded prisons.

We are all broken by something. We all have hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent….We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity (p. 289).

In his book’s final chapter, Stevenson tells of an old woman who frequents the Orleans Parish Courthouse in New Orleans. Her grandson was killed at the age of fifteen, and she found no relief when other teenage boys were convicted for his murder. She speaks with Stevenson for several minutes, holding his hand and embracing him. At one point she tells him,

“I didn’t know what to do with myself after those trials, so about a year later I started coming down here. I don’t really know why. I guess I just felt like maybe I could be someone, you know, that somebody hurting could lean on….I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other” (p. 308).

On Monday night Candace spent several hours cooking. She had volunteered to provide lunch for our colleagues in her department who teach in the first-year writing program she serves as associate director. While I helped her a little bit by tearing kale and cleaning dishes, mostly I just sat and sipped bourbon and kept her company.

“I never would have imagined ten years ago…maybe even five years ago…that my work would look like it does now. I can’t imagine that the fresh-off-his-post-doc assistant professor who was immersed in his pure math research and obsessed with publishing as many papers as he could would believe that in ten years’ time he’d be teaching writing and social justice.”

When I set Doreen’s copy of Bryan Stevenson’s book on my office table to snap a picture for this post, my eyes fell on the figs she gave me from the tree in her yard, and on the unusually-apt-today puzzle one of my favorite students once gave to me as her end-of-term reflection. I put them all in the picture, for they truly belong together, a harmony of brokenness and togetherness.

The semester’s nearly there. Let’s go catch some stones.

 

Legwork

Legwork

The past week or so I’ve spent in preparation, both for courses I’m teaching this coming term (which starts in just under three weeks) and for more far-off plans.

Tours! Lots of tours. Well, three, anyway.

I spent a couple of hours yesterday morning with Candace and the kids, walking Asheville’s Urban Trail, a 1.7-mile self-guided walking tour of thirty historical sites teaching the walker about everything from the Asheville opera house scene to the horse-head shapes of the water fountains in the old square at Pack Place. I was familiar with most of the trailmarkers, bronze plaques, statues, and other installations, but I did learn some things about Asheville that I hadn’t known before, including details on distinctive Asheville features like the Grove Arcade and the City Building.

One thing the designers of this tour weren’t too keen on including was anything about the African American community and its contributions to the city. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too shocked, given Asheville’s perennial difficulties in reckoning with issues related to food access, affordable housing, and living wages for its thousands of workers in the service sector, but I think I was expecting more than just two of the thirty sites on the tour to deal directly with the African American community. Both a part of the “Age of Diversity” segment of the tour (the Urban Trail’s equivalent of Black History Month, no doubt), thesites occupy the same block on Market Street in the descent down to Eagle street, the center of the once-thriving East End African American community.

Those two sites? One honors James Vester Miller, the mason in charge of the stonework for the Municipal Building on Market Street (about which the Urban Trail marker talks) and, in 1894, for St. Matthias Episcopal Church, home of the first African American congregation in the city. The second site pays homage to Eagle Street itself: a large bronze sculpture mounted on the side of the parking garage, The Block “was based on the collective memories of former residents who recall the days when Eagle Street was a place to shop, go to a doctor, or to meet friends after school” (Urban Trail Walking Tour map). Absent is any description of the force that destroyed the East End community, which fell victim to the “urban renewal” projects of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s,  a phenomenon about which I’ve written (in the context of my hometown) elsewhere.

My second tour came yesterday evening, when my colleagues Cory, Kevin, and Trevor from the University of South Florida Honors College had me out to the Flat Rock, NC retreat center to which they often bring USF honors students for intensive study-away experiences on sustainability and community-building. Sanctuary in the Pines truly does offer a beautiful setting for such an experience. Featuring nearly 200 acres of land, lake, and trails, and dotted by numerous buildings for on-site eating, meeting, and sleeping, this center may soon serve as the grounds for an initial event that brings together faculty and students from the USF Honors College and my own program here at UNCA. Back at the Southern Regional Honors Council meeting in Orlando, Kevin and I talked about a three-day intensive writing retreat designed for students and faculty currently working on elaborate writing projects (research articles, senior theses, etc.). We might be able to swing this in December, if we keep it simple enough. We also have less-well-developed plans for inter-institutional faculty workshops on honors pedagogy and collaborative short courses on piracy.

The third tour was this morning, The Hood Tour run by Hood Huggers International‘s very own DeWayne Barton, one of black Asheville’s most outspoken and outstanding voices. I was intrigued by the opportunity to take the tour, both personally (to learn more about my city) and professionally (to find new ways to engage my 478 courses). The two-hour tour began at the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, occupying what was the gymnasium for Stephens-Lee High School, Asheville’s African American high school during the segregation era. Stephens-Lee was one of only a handful of high schools in all of Western North Carolina, and given that its faculty were unable to find work in various white institutions of higher learning, many of Stephens-Lee’s teachers had advanced degrees in their field, enhancing the school’s academic excellence.

Stephens-LeeRecCenter

Our tour took us to several other sites in Asheville’s East End, including St. Matthias Church and Eagle Street, where we parked for a moment in the shadow of the Young Men’s Institute (YMI) Cultural Center, a building that once served as the heart of the black community but today is filled with hipster book stores and coffee shops, not a single one of them black-owned. We also stopped at Triangle Park, where a mural more than a hundred feet long shows various scenes from black Asheville’s history, including a panel dedicated to Isaac Dickson (see the featured image at the top of the post). From the East End it was up through the Lee Walker Heights housing projects, past the site of soon-to-come riverside renovations that cut through the South French Broad and Depot Street black communities, and onto the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center on Livingston Street.

It’s so much. It’s all so much. There’s so much to take in, so much to process, so much to talk to my students about when I teach 478 next, likely in the spring.

Poetry of place

Poetry of place

anentropic gestures

(half-masted flags

and labyrinths)

stand

interactive and emplaced

 

(tulip poplars dripping nectar

shedding storm-struck

branches)

thicker than a

dedicatory stele

(a monument)

 

to community

gardens: maters taters cukes

pools: beach towels strewn

along the streetside

blood-soaked and sun-dried

in testament

to our nation’s youth

Writing on the road 

Writing on the road 

I’m enjoying a long day of collegiality and contemplation in Raleigh at this year’s Council of Writing Program Administrators conference, and though I’ll no doubt have much more to say about takeaways as I process in the coming weeks (in particular regarding Asao Inoue’s amazing plenary talk this afternoon), I wanted to share a few random thoughts that have come to mind.

  • Scholars and instructors in composition and rhetoric must strike a delicate balance: avoiding “minimization” of what they do by those who misunderstand what they do (e.g. lit faculty disparaging the discipline of C&R: “I don’t really know how to teach grammar”) requires that folks in C&R foreground theory, disciplinary content, and expertise, but successful professional development of WAC/WID faculty requires that folks in C&R convince disciplinary faculty that, in some ways, “you can do it, too!” This is an oversimplification, but elaborating just why it is, in fact, an oversimplification requires a subtle argument.
  • In response to a session speaker’s request that we write what it is that gives meaning to my job: “preparing students to be the most well-informed and actively engaged citizens they can possibly be by helping them not only to recognize and utilize the skills they have and are developing, but also to recognize both the obligations they have to their communities and the opportunities they have to fulfill those obligations.”
  • I need to adopt a much more asset-based approach in designing future faculty development in WAC/WID: what skills are the faculty bringing, skills that can be leveraged to help others better learn how to teach writing in their disciplines?

Update on that whole whitewashing thing

Update on that whole whitewashing thing

In my last post, I went off on my university’s choice for the entering first-year students’ common reading, Kevin Ashton’s How to fly a horse: The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery. I noted that within minutes of my posting, I was off to a meeting at which several of the faculty and staff responsible for overseeing the common reading would talk about ways to lead discussions on the book.

What went down?

Well, a couple of us went off on the book right off the bat, noting our concerns: it’s male-heavy, it essentializes, it gives short shrift to persons of color. My colleague noted her fear that she’d be unable to lead a conversation that didn’t help the students confront these issues by viewing the book through a critical lens. I connected the book to the current social context in which the students would be reading it, one in which black bodies are made the eminent domain of a racist governmental structure. We both agreed that this choice of book might send the wrong message to incoming students, in particular incoming students of color.

Bring on the critical lenses, another couple of colleagues responded. Mathilde, for whom I’ve got insuperable respect, heard our concerns, and I believe she really heard them. She welcomed any approaches we might want to take to help the students to engage the book critically. Indeed, she noted, getting them to think critically on Day One (actually, Day Negative One, since these discussions will fall on the penultimate day of summer break) is one of our primary aims.

Other aims? To help the students to own creativity, to disabuse them of any notion they might have that they are entitled to success without work, and to introduce them to the ideas of grit and resilience.

For the next forty-five minutes or so we talked about ways in which we planned to approach the text when we met with students, beginning to compile our ideas in a Google Doc. Mathilde shared some quotes she pulled from the text, which she planned to use as the basis for small-group discussions. Candace offered a blend of reflective writing and philosophical chairs. I promised to include a few words on a “quiet conversations” exercise that I’ve used in 478 with some success. In this activity, students, after the opportunity to reflect individually and share their initial ideas in small groups, enter into a quiet conversation with the rest of the class, taking turns writing brief comments in a common location (e.g., a whiteboard) and responding to one another’s comments in turn.

To get these quiet conversations going, I’ve pulled a few quotes from the text:

  1. “But time is the great equalizer, the same for all: twenty-four hours every day, seven days every week, every life a length unknown, for richest and poorest and all in between” (pp. 24-25). I’ve already commented (in my previous post) on this statement.
  2. “Research into brainstorming has a clear conclusion. The best way to create is to work alone and evaluate solutions as they occur…Steve Wozniak…offers the same advice: ‘Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team’” (pp. 51-52). Now that’s a great way to adopt a broad perspective and accurately anticipate your work’s shortcomings.
  3. “No makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, antisocial, uncaring, lonely, and an arsenal of other insults. But no is the button that keeps us on” (p. 72). I’m curious to see where students take this…to me, self-care (a notion that’s grounded in tremendous privilege, by the way) notwithstanding, it sounds like the title of the first chapter of How To Be an Asshole.
  4. “The highly creative children [in Getzels and Jackson’s study] were funnier, more playful, less predictable, and less conventional than the high-IQ children. This was no surprise. The surprise was the teachers: they liked the high-IQ children, but they did not like the creative children” (p. 84). Aside from Ashton’s seeming acceptance of the validity of IQ as a measure of giftedness, I like this quote, and I’m curious what Honors students might have to say about it.
  5. “Sexism and racism are famous prejudices. The bias against new is not” (p. 87). Though there have been exceptions, new ideas don’t typically lead to their progenitors’ rape, murder, enslavement, and/or extermination.
  6. “Never have a failure in public that you could have in private. Private failures are faster, cheaper, and less painful” (p. 89). Though rarely do we grow so much from them.
  7. “So, do better tools always lead to a better life? Does making better things always make things better? How can we be sure that making things better won’t make things worse?” (p. 156) I actually like this question, though I don’t much care for Ashton’s answer to it.
  8. “The answer to invention’s problems is not less invention, but more…New solutions beget new problems, which beget new solutions. This is the cycle of our species. We will always make things better. We will never make them best. We should not expect to anticipate all the consequences of our creations, or even most of them, good or bad” (p. 162). I can’t even, with this unapologetic futurist with a truly twisted teleology. (And yes, I really did just want to write the words “truly twisted teleology.”)
  9. “Whatever your higher power, whether God, Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, or the greater good of humanity, this is whom you serve when you commit to a life of creation. What is diabolical is squandering your talents. We sell our soul when we waste our time. We drive neither ourselves nor our world forward if we choose idling over inventing” (p. 176). Because, as we all know, the secret to productivity is ceaseless toil…has anyone ever made a more Protestant statement than this one?
  10. “Cook to eat, not to serve” (p. 180). Nothing like a little selfishness and misanthropy to make the world a brighter place.
  11. “The circumstances forced on Kelly Johnson seemed adverse, but turned out to be fortuitous — he discovered that a small, isolated, highly motivated group is the best kind of team for creation” (p. 195). Cf. the quote from pp. 51-52 above…though, as with that quote: it’ll be a better world for all if we keep apart from one another, don’t share ideas, and fail to give a tinker’s dam about others’ perspectives.

Whew. I’m definitely not going to use all of these; likely no more than four or five. Regardless of which ones I pick, they’ll lead to some good discussions.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the world and me. Wow. Just…wow. Unflinching. Raw. What hits me hardest is the fact that though he and I are almost exactly the same age, the America he grew up in (black Baltimore) might as well be Mars, so different is it from the America I grew up in (mostly-white Helena, Montana). Toni Morrison’s right in saying that Coates picks up where James Baldwin left off. However, I agree with my colleagues in yesterday’s meeting, too, when they pointed out that this book would have been a poor choice for a common reading, if only because a one-hour conversation two days before the semester begins would offer utterly insufficient time to unpack Coates, especially given the fact that the world he and his son (whom he addresses in the book) is one that’s alien to the vast majority of our students.