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.