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.

 

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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.

 

How to whitewash creativity

How to whitewash creativity

All right, y’all, we fucked up.

This past academic year, the decision was made to reboot the long-defunct common reading program for our entering first-year students. During the summer before they arrive on campus, rising first-years would be asked to read a book, the same book for all of them, which they would then discuss (with the help of faculty and staff facilitators) once they got to campus. I was a member of the First-Year Experience Advisory Committee, the group charged with selecting a text and organizing discussion groups. After consulting a number of reviews (some from publishers’ brochures and other pieces of literature whose sole purpose is to advertise first-year common readings), the committee chose a book.

I only wish I’d had time to read the proposed texts.

Kevin Ashton’s How to fly a horse: The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery is a poorly-written, meandering, soppy, poppy, platitude-laden whitewashed sausagefest that, while purporting to reclaim creativity for everyone (while exploding the myth of the inspired genius), offers page after page of examples of exceptional thinkers, mostly in STEM, and almost exclusively white European and American males. Women are almost entirely confined to a chapter whose express purpose is to point out that women are capable of being creative, too; this makes the chapter read like a poorly-planned Women’s History Month project. Persons of color are almost entirely absent, the only mentions of same being a 19th century black Caribbean slave, members of a pair of indigenous peoples (the Ilongots of the island of Luzon, introduced to the reader as “headhunters,” and the Himba, a north African people who serve Ashton solely as an inspiration for Galton’s famous 19th century theories of  eugenics), a WASPily mythologized Robert Johnson, a Japanese Zen master whose story is tainted with orientalist overtones, and a small handful of hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z. The total number of pages granted these folks of color is roughly ten.

Meanwhile, throughout, the book is simply soaking with white male privilege, with tone-deaf proclamations like “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 have no time” is an excuse he seems unwilling to grant single mothers who work three minimum-wage-or-worse jobs, glibly assuming they must have the same opportunity to create afforded your typical upper-middle-management executive, the sort of person who, incidentally, I suspect is a member of the actual audience for this book.

I could go on and on about the book’s other shortcomings (its insistence that the best creative teams work in solitude and secrecy, shutting themselves out from others perspectives; its oversimplification, perversion, and out-and-out misrepresentation of recent results in fields like neuropsychology and palaeoanthropology; its sloppy and repetitive prose; its author’s apparent ignorance of Greek and Latin [okay, that’s a cheap shot, but he mistakes the two languages more than once]), but I won’t, because in just a few minutes I have to run off to a meeting of faculty and staff who’ll be leading student discussions on this book in about a month and a half.

With black men being slaughtered in the streets almost daily, one of the worst things we can do at a campus that already has trouble attracting, recruiting, and retaining students of color is present such a book as a representation of what we stand for. Sadly, I fear the best that I might be able to do at this point (though I’m tempted to spend several hundred dollars to buy all entering Honors students a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the world and me) is help our students to process this elegy for uncritical futurism.

Off to the meeting, with a sick feeling in my stomach and a sour taste in my mouth…

Invisible Asheville

Invisible Asheville

Yesterday, my Oulipo class put together a condensed version of a project the Oulipo Compendium attributes to the group Invisible Seattle:

In 1983 the group [Invisible Seattle] accomplished the most ambitious of its public works, the provocation and compilation of The Novel of Seattle, by Seattle, a month-long project in which hard-hatted and overalled Invisible Seattle “literary workers” approached citizens saying, “Excuse me, we’re building a novel, may we borrow a few of  your words?” Some Oulipian and Oulipo-inspired techniques were used to generate the thousands of individual text contributions, and an algorithmic compilation structure was used to complete the first draft in a four-day public spectacle.” (Oulipo Compendium, p. 163)

I joined my five students in fanning outward from the Laurel Forum, each of us accosting ten or twelve folks who had the misfortune of being on campus, asking that they share a few words with us. Our “compilation structure” was a minimal one, owing to the short time we had to complete our composition. Namely, we just asked Mathematica to randomize the meaning-units fed us by our many anonymous interlocutors. The result is…interesting. I present “I am Nemo, and I touched the boat”:

***

I am Nemo, and I touched the boat. Helpful.

I saw an ant carrying an egg. Laughs. There might be some in July. What? Diction.

Time is what you make it; try not to waste it. The campus is beautiful. I think it’s a cool class.

Celtic. Are you looking for anything in particular?

We’re introducing our daughter to the school. It’s unseasonably warm today, I’m schvitzing! Underwater baskets don’t weave themselves. Awesome.

So, just random words? And they found a guy with a man-bun who helped them on their journey. You have to use space ships. It was a long and hard journey, but they made friends along the way.

Apprehension. I’m glad we picked UNC Asheville. Beautiful campus. Beer is good.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. We’re learning, observing, having fun, loving nature, and enjoying life. I don’t have anything to say. Beautiful sky, peaceful green, synergy. The bull says ‘ahchooo’!

Me and my classmates are building a short story, can I borrow some of your words? Sweet peas look like green trees. Religion and democracy. Sticky. I don’t know if that makes a difference. I’ve got to get to the mailroom before it closes.

A small baby fish who suffered from short term memory loss. They lost their way and spent their whole life searching for their way home. This is awkward.

No. Jelly beans. We were talking about farmers markets and seasonal fruits, like peaches.

Abecedarian. I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born. I have a feeling you’re going to get this from everybody. The grass at my house is brown from lack of rain.

Apple pie, blue sky. Dependent only on a nucleotide. I think we’re just hungry right now. I wish I would have worn socks today. I have a conference call at one o’clock.

Nucleotide.

What is this for again? Paper towels. I don’t know. Pinball, ping pong, skateboards. Perambulator. Concerted reaction.

The pressure! What kind of words? I am so very tired today. Ask someone else. It’s hot out…that can’t be my sentence, can it?

I’m Dory. Bipartisanship. I’m trying to come up with something weird and crazy, but it’s not working because I’m on the spot. The electric chair was invented by a dentist. Stupendous.

Like what? Oh my god. Ergonomic. I really love how sunny it is today. Moist.

Kernel. Did they find their way home? Betwixt. Sure, mindful. Martian. It’s pretty hot, but it’s summer in North Carolina, so what do you expect? One should never tell on oneself.

Nocturnal. Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na ….Batman! Ambidextrous.

HBO Go at work. Vernacular. I think that’s all I’ve got. The pressure!

Excitement. Sad. I’m not a student; I’m just an intern here. It’s starting to warm up outside. It’s getting humid. Dirty. Greasy, delicious. There is a hidden world right underneath us, right underneath our eyes.

I like the term ‘organic mechanic.’ And ‘slumber dungeon.’

Lozenge. Unspeakable. What is life? Why is this so stressful?

A ping pong ball: multifaceted, luminous. Here, you can stab this.

The purple elephant drinks coffee with Khrushchev, slowly. It’s ugly and sweaty and gross in Asheville today, but at least people are wearing deodorant for the most part.

I wish I was more creative.

The cafeteria is very large. I was born my father’s son, the day my mother died. Precocious. Mortifying.

I don’t have my wallet with me.

Fuck.

***

Note: I just joined Faculty Forward Network, an organization dedicated to working for equitable treatment of faculty in higher ed, especially the often-invisible ranks of contingent faculty. Stay tuned…