What happens when liberal arts are devalued in the community college?

5653093-steve-jobs-liberal-arts-quoteThere seems to be an increasing hostility in the world today towards the study of the liberal arts. This is not a new subject to readers of my blog. As a community college instructor teaching English, I have grave concerns about how this hostility is affecting many of my students at the college where I teach.

If students don’t value the liberal arts, especially the humanities, they often become resentful of having to complete assignments that appear, to their uninformed minds, to have no practical value. This resentment can turn to inattentiveness and a lack of participation, which sometimes turns to more serious inappropriate behavior, and even to open hostility and violence, according to a 2008 study by educational counselors Dr. Robert Dobmeier and Joseph Moran (“Dealing with the Disruptive Behavior of Adult Learners”).

The feeling that students’ time studying in the humanities classroom is somehow wasted is often times reinforced by negative attitudes within the home, among peers and in the wider community. For example, former Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina said in a 2013 radio interview referring to certain humanities courses, including gender studies and an African foreign language

“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said, adding, “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

If the governor of a state with a rich tradition of superb institutions of higher education feels free to make such uninformed statements, it is logical to assume that some students are hearing similar ones at home and among their peers.

I can attest that this lack of respect has led to disrespect for not only the disciplines I teach, but also for myself. Furthermore, I am not alone. Students are becoming more and more critical of instructors’ assignments, teaching styles and assessments. I don’t mean legitimate questions respectfully asked, which leads to explanations that help students understand the material better, but criticism that is increasingly uncivil, including sleeping, texting or talking in class, posting inappropriate comments in online discussion forums, as well as e-mailing rude and even obscene comments to instructors.

Worse, community college instructors are increasingly confronted with angry and hostile students in the classroom and in our offices. These students are often upset that an instructor has carried out a policy that is stated clearly in his or her syllabus or there is some disagreement about a grade. Sometimes these encounters are upsetting and even frightening to the instructor, his or her colleagues, other students, staff and administrators.

I have been teaching a long time, and I know that incidents like these have been happening since the first classrooms were created, but I have never, in my whole almost 30-year career, had so many adult students with such unhealthy attitudes toward learning for learning’s sake, that inexplicable passion for learning, which leads to all of the things so many people say they desire out of higher education–citizens who can think critically, communicate well, solve problems and adapt to new situations quickly.

Something needs to be done. But what? There are no easy answers, but I am going to begin with educating myself with specific information that supports my belief that the study of the liberal arts should be the bedrock of all our institutions of higher learning.

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I found this incredible essay posted on the Academy of Arts and Sciences website, along with a great article entitled, The Vitality of the Humanities in U.S. Community Colleges,” that reiterates my thoughts on the importance of all students studying the arts and humanities in our community colleges:

January 19, 2015

Community College Students and the Humanities: New Opportunities for Learning and Growth

posted by Martha J. Kanter

Martha J. Kanter, Ed.D., is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Higher Education at New York University and former U.S. Under Secretary of Education from 2009 through 2013.

More than 40 percent of our nation’s adults are unable to read, write, or compute at the competency level expected of America’s high school graduates, so it’s hardly a surprise, even if it is gravely disappointing and frustrating, to inform policy makers, and the public about the worth of the humanities.1 But what better way to elevate the discussion than with facts and policy strategies?

That is why the light that the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is shining on community colleges and the humanities is critical in this endeavor. Even today, too many Americans aren’t aware that the community colleges are the gateway to higher education for more than 40 percent of our nation’s undergraduates. A generation ago the United States was first in the world in the number of college graduates with two-year and four-year degrees. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), we are now eleventh in the world, tied with Israel.2 The good news is that we are moving in the right direction: we were ranked sixteenth 16th in the world in 2009. It’s a national imperative that we provide Americans the best quality education so we must look to the community colleges and state universities where the middle-class and low-income majority is seeking higher education. (my accent)

Educational improvements and financial support are sorely needed. Sadly, public colleges and universities were hit hard by the recession and lost, on average, about 20 percent of their state support. We need our private universities to join with their colleagues in the community colleges and state universities in a shared vision to reimagine and redesign general education in the years ahead. In doing so, we will ensure that all of our students have access to the fundamental ideas, knowledge, skills, and capacity to learn that will advance greater numbers of students with undergraduate and graduate degrees for America’s prosperity in the 21st century.

Looking at the facts, more than a third of associate’s degrees are awarded in subjects that require a significant humanities course load.3 Exposure to the humanities in the first two years of college as a significant component of general education provides the intellectual framework for students to compare and contrast the viewpoints of those different from themselves and to delve into the learning spheres of analytical reasoning, problem solving, and decision making to tackle the very real problems facing their communities and the greater society.

In a recent survey, the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that 93 percent of CEOs want to hire individuals who demonstrate the “capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems,” capabilities “more important than their undergraduate major. More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”4  (accent is mine) 

Unfortunately, the collaboration so urgently needed between the arts, humanities, sciences, and business has fragmented into ever more disparate pieces over the last decade when their interaction and integration should be encouraged to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity to drive our nation forward. In the decades ahead, our nation will need more Americans with college degrees who are well versed in the histories and opportunities to address the major societal challenges of our democracy and the world, not the least of which include the education levels of children, income inequality, the social, economic and civic needs of diverse communities, globalization, innovation, and American competitiveness. Interdisciplinary thought leadership and collaboration will be more important than ever in crossing boundaries to address the local, regional, national, and global problems ahead of us.

When Tom Ehrlich spoke about the pathways to ethical and engaged citizenship at Miami Dade College in 2009, he said, “college learning must be about much more that [sic] knowledge—knowledge that may be obsolete in just a few years. Most important, it must be about learning how to learn and to keep on learning. At its core, that is what a liberal education does, it liberates our minds to learn.”5  (accent is mine) 

We should look to the evidence, embrace the liberal arts as a necessary foundation for postsecondary education in all fields of study, and figure out how to give our students the best possible opportunities to discover themselves, their place in the world, and how they can contribute to improving their own lives and the lives of their communities. In doing so, we will be part of the American dream we wish to realize for ourselves and future generations. (accent is mine)

ENDNOTES
1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=199909; and U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Percentage of adults in each prose, document, and quantitative literacy level: 1992 and 2003,” in 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2003), http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp#2.
2 OECD, Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2014-en.
3 American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Associate’s Degree Completions in the Humanities as a Percentage of All Associate’s Degree Completions, 1987–2013,” in Humanities Indicators, 2014.
4 Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Hart Research Associates, 2013), http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.
5 Tom Ehrlich, “Ethical and Engaged Citizens: Whose Responsibility?” (talk delivered at Miami Dade College, Miami, FL, May 21, 2009).

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Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

Woodstock
by
Joni Mitchell
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Joni Mitchell did not play at Woodstock. She wasn’t even there. Reportedly, she penned this homage to one of the most important musical events of the 20th Century from a hotel room as she watched clips of the festival on TV. Nevertheless, she caught the spirit of that time, experienced it in a true way and wanted to return to it–knew that it would be  necessary to go back to the place where the spark became flame, built up and roared.
I was nine-years-old when Woodstock happened. My father was a major in Army Intelligence, serving in Vietnam; nevertheless, the country’s division over the war was not a part of my life then. My wonderful parents protected us as best they could from the reality of my father’s situation. Woodstock came and went while I was playing Kick-the-Can in my grandmother’s backyard, waiting for my little brother to be born and my daddy to come home.
I didn’t really start listening to Mitchell’s music much until college. I attended a rather conservative Christian university, and because I’ve always been a contrary soul, probably to get attention more than anything, I subscribed to Rolling Stone magazine and carried each issue  around with the cover always carefully arranged to show off the title. Oh, what a rebel.
joni_wild

Joni Mitchell painted a self-portrait for the cover of Wild Things Run Fast

I did, however, truly read Rolling Stone and often times bought albums that were reviewed favorably in the magazine. Joni Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast was reviewed (Review), and I liked what I read, so I bought the album. It moved me, especially  the final track, based on the beautiful “Love” chapter in the Bible–I Corinthians 13.

But not until I took my first teaching job in Aliquippa, PA, working at a private Christian school that paid me a pittance (less than the male teachers with equal or less experience), did I hear Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”
In PA, one of the things I did to amuse myself was go to the nearby mall and “shop,” rarely buying anything unless I had gotten a little care package from home or pushed paying a bill back a little. In the mall was a record store that also sold cassette tapes (CDs were not a thing yet). I was single then, and there was this good-looking young man who frequently worked there, so I would always take time to visit and linger if he was working, looking through the used and discounted cassette tape bin (I couldn’t afford a record player), searching for something that looked interesting.
One day I found something of value to me–Joni Mitchell’s third album–Ladies of the xladiesCanyon. Even then the “Woodstock” track on that album didn’t appeal that much to me. I preferred the rock version by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Other tracks resonated with my single, 20-something self–“Big, Yellow Taxi” and “Conversation,” especially.
I was lonely then. Still am in many ways, whenever I’m away from my family and close friends. Then as now,  I just never seemed to fit in anywhere else. Southerner from Alabama living in dying northern steel town. Liberal in the conservative world–conservative in the liberal world. Devoutly Christian yet disillusioned with institutionalized religion. But whenever I listened to Mitchell’s songs, I just felt better. Her distinctive voice would waft over me, soothing away the frustrations of the day–the loneliness, the isolation, the otherness.

Life got much better and infinitely less lonely when I started dating the man who would become my wonderful husband. After we moved from PA and settled in North Carolina, I still listened to Joni Mitchell, now on CD, but different songs began to resonate with me–my daughter was born and “The Circle Game” became my favorite, but now when I listened to “Woodstock,” Mitchell’s piano and poetry began to sink in: “We are stardust. We are golden.” Yes, yes we were.

6c9a21a22275faf54018dbcb55f1db46-2

by seriousfun@Morguefile.com

Then we come to yesterday–twenty years later–over twenty years doing what I love to do and in which I always thought I excelled. “Perhaps you’re not as good as you think you are,” I thought as I drove home after a particularly disheartening day, not of teaching, but of listening to how my colleagues, my friends, are being dismissed, belittled and even harassed by people who are supposed to have their best interest at heart, and worst of all, hearing an administrator, who has never taught an online class, denigrating our students in an open roundtable discussion about distance learning.
Feeling empty, I drove. Then, as if mystically planned all along, I tapped the CD player button. “Ladies of the Canyon,” the song, “Woodstock” was playing–the second verse. Joni’s voice soothed me again and started bringing me back.
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But you know life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Thanks to Joni, I’m on my way back.

wildflowers

photo by hmjmiller@morguefile.com

I have decided to add a creative non-fiction category to Teach. Write: A Literary Journal for Teachers of Writing. Send me creative non-fiction pieces about your experiences as a writing instructor. I will also be accepting poetry and short fiction. See Submissions Guidelines here.  I will be accepting submissions until July 1, 2017 for the first edition of the journal.

December 1 still the deadline

mid

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Globe Theater, London 2015

I haven’t written this blog for almost two months. I’m sure you can guess why, so I won’t go into it. Maybe I will some day, but not today. Today is the end of a restful and contemplative Thanksgiving season, the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of comfort. Today, I am thankful and comforted that I still have something to give to this world.

And yet.

It’s been a long two months, y’all. I have been hopeful, elated, disheartened and even depressed, but none of these feelings are going to get me anywhere. They certainly won’t make me a better teacher, a better writer, a better person. So, I have rested and recuperated, found myself again, the quiet and peaceful me, the me who has a confidence she rarely shows the world, who rests in the certainty that the Apostle Paul was right when he wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

But what tools does such an insignificant person like me have to do good? The question is absurd. I am a writing teacher. My position affords me tremendous opportunities to do good, and I am so grateful to have these chances to help people pursue the most important achievement of  all, becoming better. Certainly I can help students make their writing better, help them to discover ways to strengthen sentence structure and word usage to better communicate. But teaching writing, because it is so intimate, because students will write things they could never say, forms a bond that few other people can have with a relative stranger–a person who sits and listens and learns for only a few weeks and then is gone.

However, I am not only a writing teacher dedicated to helping my students become better, I have other tools to do good. I am a writer–a true writer.  I write because writing is a part of who I am. One reason I have come to prefer teaching online to teaching in a classroom is that I’m a better writer than a speaker. When I write I can go back and revise, find better words, create better sentences, more effective structures, even different punctuation, until I’m satisfied, or more likely, have run out of time. Being a writer forces me to re-evaluate my words and the way I say them, allows me to instruct more clearly, more permanently, offers me opportunities to express myself with groanings I can not utter, gives me the chance to communicate the joy and sorrow of my life, bringing comfort and cheer to others.

And then there is this one tool that I can’t quite figure out how to use–the one that gets me into so much trouble–my anger. It exhausts me, being angry all the time. Oh, I understand it, even like it at times. It burns inside of me and makes me feel alive. Mostly, it is a righteous flame. At times it fuels me to do good–to speak for those who cannot, to protect like Mother Bear. But these past couple of months, the anger has flamed and threatened to overtake me like the wildfires around my mountain home, sparked by two long months of drought and by small minds who care little about anything other than their immediate ill-conceived pleasure.

But the rains are coming. The showers are already here.

I got this package in the mail the other day. I didn’t think it was for me because I hadn’t ordered anything, but no one else in the household had either, so I opened it up, right before we got the first rainfall that we’ve had since September. Here’s a picture of it:

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As you probably know, it’s from Midsummer’s Night Dream. Helena says it to Hermia when they are fighting over something stupid. Isn’t it funny that these few little words came to me, I still don’t know by whom, at such a low point, the driest part of the season, like raindrops? These words, originally meant to be an insult, hurled at Helena’s vertically challenged rival in a moment of pique, came to me as precious moisture to help dampen the fire of my anger, to redirect it into positive action.

It was just a little rain that day. Just a little. It didn’t really change anything, but it gave me hope. You remember hope.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -”  –Emily Dickinson

I am little, oh so little, but I am fierce,  never stopping -at all.

***

And……Still plan to roll out my literary e-zine on December 1, so watch for details and submission guidelines for TEACH. WRITE. in the coming days.

 

Teach. Write. Again.

writer-605764_640-2

I have a dream. To publish a literary e-zine that celebrates the writing of composition teachers.

The one thing that has helped me most to become an effective composition teacher, besides twenty-seven years of teaching English composition of course, is writing and pursuing publication of my work. Such a process has certainly kept me humble (I quit counting when my rejections reached over two hundred.) and has never made me rich. However, a couple of years, I did make enough to be taxed. (Of course, that isn’t saying much, is it?)

On the other hand, with over two dozen short stories published in print and online publications, as well as over a hundred theater reviews and features for the local paper, five years as columnist for my college, two or three years as an arts columnist, and now approaching the production of my second full-length play, my writing avocation has also boosted my confidence as a writing  instructor and given me a certain credibility with my students, some of my students.

Above all, being a writer keeps me mindful of what it’s like to write for a critical audience–a critique group member, an editor, an agent, an audience.

3990049531_e1c94fdd9e_bBecause I’m a writer, I am reminded of what it’s like

  • to procrastinate.
  • to spend more time revising and editing than composing
  • to be uninterested, or lose interest, in a project
  • to be obligated to complete said project
  • to have a work criticized or rejected
  • to take that criticism or rejection as a personal attack
  • to be misunderstood

But it’s not all bad. Because I am a writer, I can truthfully inform my students that good writing, while hard, and often thankless, work is

  • a valuable skill
  • a confidence builder
  • actually can be fun
  • and sometimes, every now and then, absolutely glorious!

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So, the dream is to have this little online publication called Teach. Write. that will allow present and former composition teachers of all types to try their hands at writing out of their comfort zone, to make themselves vulnerable again to constructive criticism and rejection, to boost their confidence and support their colleagues–to write, and in so doing, become better teachers, better people.

The e-zine will be for writing teachers by writing teachers, specifically, but because the style and subject of essays, poetry and short stories will be open for the most part, the magazine should appeal to a general audience.

Although I will consider pieces that are on the subject of writing if they are unusual and compelling, I’m not particularly looking for work that is about writing or being a writing teacher. As I mentioned, this magazine is calling for teachers to move out of their comfort zones, so I would rather they write a literary short story or a flash piece, a sonnet or poem in blank verse, an essay about a night spent in jail–whatever they want to say. These will be the general submissions.

Because I want this e-zine to be useful to writing teachers, I also will have a regular feature called “Writing Your Own.” In this feature I will call for composition teachers to write pieces based on their own writing prompts. For example, the fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance, published a flash piece called “Waiting for Beowulf” that I had written as an example for a creative writing assignment in my British literature I online class.  It is so helpful for instructors to write with their students–it can also be simply fun, yielding strong writing from students and publishable work from teachers.

I have set December 1 as the deadline for setting up the website. At that time, I will begin accepting essays and short fiction of 2,500 words or less, poetry of 100 lines or less (up to three poems accepted in one document), ten-minute stage and screenplays (ten pages), and pieces for the “Writing Your Own” feature (250-2,500 words).

All teacher-writers should include a short (100 words or less) biographical statement, which includes their present or past position as an English composition teacher. This statement is more important to me than publication credits. Of course, elementary and middle school language arts teachers, high school and college-level English teachers can submit, but if they have taught independently for business and industry or as part of a continuing education program, they are also eligible. If they have tutored in English composition professionally or as a volunteer, they may feel free to submit. They should simply mention composition teaching experience in the bio..

From  December 1 to June 30, I will accept submissions for the inaugural edition, which I hope to publish in the fall. My desire is to begin publishing twice a year, fall and spring, hoping that contributers who are working teachers can write and submit in the summer and winter, then enjoy, along with their students, their published work in the fall and spring.

I believe it is important to pay writers, but I don’t have much money, so I will be offering only a small honorarium here at the beginning of my venture, hoping that in the future I can offer more. I will let writers know the amount in December.

If anyone is interested in submitting  work to Teach. Write., start writing and look for an announcement on Hey, Mrs. Winkler with a link to Teach. Write. 

I have had this dream for a long time, but as it is has been with most of my dreams, they only happen when I find the time to do them and set to work.  The time is now.

 

Teach. Write.

Queens Univ_CharlotteA couple of weeks ago, I attended a wonderful four-day writing workshop at Queens University in Charlotte, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network (NCWN), of which I am a member. I came away humbled but also encouraged, with new confidence in my work and with my writing spirit renewed. This long weekend convinced me that teachers of writing need to not only practice their own writing, but also put it out there! Go to workshops and critique groups, present at readings and literary open mic events. Teachers who write and open that writing up to criticism can come back into the classroom with a renewed sense of what it’s like to be a student. At least, that’s what happened to me.

Dinner at Fenwicks

Shrimp and Grits at Fenwick’s

The workshop began on Thursday afternoon. I arrived and was the first one to sign up for the open mic night. After I got settled, I had time to explore that area of Charlotte,  with many stately old homes and the impressive Queens University campus. Then, I found a nice little restaurant called Fenwick’s and had some scrumptious shrimp and grits with a nice chardonnay to start things off right. That evening Ed Southern, director of NCWN led us in a fun exercise to help us get to know one another followed by  a fascinating presentation on The Wall Poems of Charlotte, a grass roots public art project, which highlights the work of North Carolina poets. I think our college should consider a similar public art project at our college or in our town. Perhaps I will propose it.

One of the best things about the trip was that I was able to remember what it is like to be a student again–always good for a teacher to experience, especially if she’s been at it as long as I have.

At my age, I never thought to again be sharing the bathroom and showers in the dorm, seeking  out a friend in the dining hall at lunch or walking with some fellow students down to one of the local hangouts, but that’s what I did! The closeness and camaraderie I developed with the eight other fiction writers in the workshop as well as the other writers in the poetry and non-fiction workshops, helped take away the initial uncomfortable feelings I had at moving out of my middle-aged comfort zone and made it easier to accept the constructive criticism offered by the instructor and my fellow students.

Our marvelous instructor Sarah Creech, who teaches at Queens University, also helped us feel more comfortable by  doing some simple exercises that encouraged us to get to know one another better, but it wasn’t long before we were seriously critiquing the work that we had shared with each other in the weeks before the workshop began.

For some ungodly reason, I signed up to be the first person (again) to be critiqued, but Sarah facilitated the group with such finesse and my fellow writers were so kind and supportive, that it wasn’t hard to accept the criticism. In fact, I found it affirming and encouraging because most of the areas that needed improvement were areas that I myself targeted for revision. It sure didn’t hurt to hear the positive comments either.

In front of Chapel

It was pretty hot, but in the morning and evening, I enjoyed walking around the beautiful campus or writing in one of the common areas.

We repeated the process of critiquing, beginning with what is working and what could use revision, for the other eight attendees. What I found especially interesting was the better I got to know the other people in my group, the more I wanted to offer truly helpful words of advice and not just give some throw away comments. I also found myself going back and re-reading their work, so I could give more in depth comments. In addition, my confidence grew in my own work. Here were other serious writers, good writers, but my work was on a par with theirs.

After the first day of critiquing each others’ work, Sarah concentrated on lecture and exercises to help bolster the class’s weaker areas that had been revealed from the critiques the day before. We emphasized character development and motivation, sensory details and setting, among other issues. The lectures were always targeted and blessedly short, followed by periods of writing. That evening we enjoyed our literary open mic event, which was a wonderful time to hear the work of writers in my own group as well as poets and non-fiction writers from the other group. a pizza party in the commons area of Sykes Learning Center ended the official events of the evening, but a few of us continued our discussion of the weekend at a local pub, just like in the old college days.

Sykes Learning Center

Sykes Learning Center

The last day we did more writing but also had time to share our work with the group, no critiquing this time–just enjoying each other as writers. As much as I missed my family and was glad to be going home, I truly was sad to say goodbye to my new writer friends but glad that I had a chance to meet them. I hope to continue sharing my work with them. It is amazing how quickly people can bond when they share a passion for storytelling.

It may be obvious what I learned and had affirmed about teaching composition during the workshop, but here is a list of a few things that come to mind:

  • spend time letting students get to know each other as people
  • build in time to socialize
  • celebrate your students’ writing
  • provide opportunities to share writing
  • keep any lecture relevant to the particular group of students you are teaching
  • keep lecture to a minimum
  • target areas that need work and tailor-make exercises to help improve weak areas
  • make exercises creative and fun
  • allow students to critique each other’s writing in small groups
  • begin with positive feedback but move on to areas that need improvement

Stay tuned for my next blog post when I present the details of my new project–an online literary magazine designed to showcase the work of those who teach writing.

The Art of Collaboration

Cast Meets with Susan Burk

Cast meets via Skype with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation during rehearsals for The Laramie Project – photo by Vince LaMonica

Not soon after I started working at the community college where I teach, I was thrilled that a new degree was added–an Associates of Fine Arts in Drama. The young woman who led the program brought back to life my love of all aspects of theater production. I had dabbled in community theater as a publicist, properties manager, stage director and actor in several places where I lived, but raising a small child and teaching a heavy adjunct load meant little time for this passion.

 

The drama department at the college brought it all back to me. Furthermore, it offered me opportunities to get back onto the stage through small roles that didn’t require a great deal of rehearsal time. Jennifer, the director, always made it doable, and the more I became involved the more I wanted to do. Because her department is small, and she is the only full-time instructor, Jennifer and I, an English teacher, started finding more and more opportunities to work together, forming a cross-curriculum relationship that has, I think, greatly enhanced both departments for the advancement of our students and has sustained us both by allowing us the creative outlets that we crave.

It all started one day, long ago, over lunch at a Chinese buffet restaurant, when we were discussing the upcoming production. Jennifer had decided she wanted to do two one-act plays with her directing one and me the other as I had expressed the desire of getting my feet wet as a director. She had already decided on one of the plays–Blue Window by Craig Lucas, but she hadn’t been able to find a suitable play for me to direct.

Almost as a joke, I said, “Hey, guess what?”

“What?” she said.

“I wrote a play long years ago. It’s called Green Room. How about that, Blue Window, Green Room.” I was almost laughing. I really wasn’t serious at all or suggesting anything, I swear.

Then, she said, “Let’s do that one.”

“What?” I said.

“Let’s do your play.”

“But you haven’t even read it. You don’t know anything about it. It might suck. I mean, as far as I remember it does suck.”

“Here’s the beauty of it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever we don’t like, we change.”

Thus began a truly productive collaboration between two instructors. I can’t tell you what it means as a writer and an educator to have this kind of partnership, which protects Jennifer and her department from isolation and offers me opportunities to stretch the creative side in me–the writer, the actor.

We did produce Blue Window and Green Room. I ended up handing the directing baton over to Jennifer when, two weeks before opening night, one of the leads quit, and I had to step in to act. In addition, Curtis, a student who played a lead role in the play, also composed original music for Green Room and has gone on to collaborate with me, and Jennifer,  on many projects even after he left school.

The next semester I directed my first full length play, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Was I crazy? Of course, I was, but of course, Jennifer was there to help me through the process, and without her expertise the show would have been a disaster. On the other hand, because of my knowledge of German (I double majored in English and German in undergraduate school), I was able to contribute direct translations from the original text when the British translations we were using didn’t work. Also, I have a particular interest in musicals, which Jennifer doesn’t share, so working again with Curtis, we composed original music for the play.

Over and over again, Jennifer and I, along with students like Curtis, as well as colleagues, have collaborated on productions. So many times our ideas came from just seeing plays together in the community or at conferences. Other times they simply sprang from casual conversation or out of a desire to find a special project for a special actor. Here are just a few examples of our working together (in no particular order):

  • A production of Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project’s Laramie Project with student-led talk back facilitated by the public speaking instructor at the college. In addition, Jennifer had frequent discussions with Susan Burk from the Matthew Shepard Foundation and cast members had a teleconference with Burk to prepare for their roles. I acted in the show and wrote two features about the production for the local newspaper. Follow these links to read the features: 1)  Pre-Production 2)  Production
  • BRCC’s participation in the 48 Hour Film Project, winning Asheville’s contest in 2008. See the film at this link: Serial Love
  • Tennessee Williams’ One-Act Play Festival–we had two separate stages, a southern-style picnic and a lecture on Williams by one of our English faculty
  • Pre-show lecture about Lord Byron and the Shelleys before the production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry
  • Pre-show lecture, scenes and short film (produced by drama department) before production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
  • Pre-show lecture by me and an adjunct English instructor before Shakespeare’s Macbeth (we both acted in the production as well)
  • World premiere of A Carolina Story, a musical based on the Book
    Carolina Story 029

    A Carolina Story, April 2012

    of Job, by me with music by Curtis (We produced it a second time as a fund-raiser for the student emergency grant and loan fund)

There have been so many other examples of how our collaboration has enhanced our teaching. Currently, we are collaborating on perhaps our most ambitious project yet, an original stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are attempting to preserve the plot and style of the original while adding exciting multi-media effects to enhance the production.

Most theaters cannot sustain this kind of freedom and collaboration between writer and producer/director. It is educational theater, especially in higher education, that allows for this kind of risk-taking to take place. It is also this kind of educational theater that should be supported with proper funding and promotion because in the end, collaboration between faculty, staff, students, administration and community is what it takes for the arts in education to flourish, teaching us to work together for the betterment of all.

And hey, if you’re near Asheville the weekend before Halloween, come see Frankenstein!!

 

 

 

Chicago Follow Up

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The Bean–Chicago (chicagotraveler.com)

Finally getting back to my blog after a busy, busy spring break and catching up with my classes. I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the great books, monographs, white papers and other materials I collected while I was in Chicago. Here’s just a few of the things I brought back for my colleagues and me:

  • Understanding Cultural Diversity in a Complex World by Dr. Leo Parvis. I went to Dr. Parvis’s session on cultural diversity and it was quite inspiring. Dr. Parvis shows what dedication and enthusiasm can do. He has built up the cultural diversity at his college–Dunwoody Community College in Minnesota–from practically nothing to its current healthy mix of cultures. His book examines some of his most successful ideas.
  • Toward a New Ecology of Student Success: Expanding and Transforming Learning Opportunities Throughout the Community College by Dr. Jim Rigg. I went to Dr. Rigg’s session mainly out of curiosity since I entered the monograph competition that I had applied for and he won. He sure deserved to! His monograph is a well-researched and persuasive argument for “The Emerging/Transformative Cognitive Frame” (9) approach to student learning that he claims will lead students “toward becoming life long learners” (10). On improving retention, Riggs says, “Numerous studies on improving persistence rates and increasing student success point out the importance of having a rigorous academic curriculum and an engaging and nurturing campus environment” (7). So much of what he says in the books echoes my own views and the views of many of my colleagues. It’s nice to have validation as well as numerous great ideas I hope to share with our president before too long.
  • Bread and Roses: Helping Students Make a Good Living and Live a Good Life by Dr. Terry O’Banion, President Emeritus of the League for Innovation in Community Colleges. This excellent monograph makes the case for what the author calls “Essential Education,” one that combines the best of Liberal Arts education (the rose) with Workforce education (the bread). He says, “We need a practical liberal arts and a liberal career education” (25). One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from Tyton Partners, an educational advisory firm in Boston, “Foundational, lifelong skills, such as critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, and problem solving are climbing to the top of employers wish lists [….] Ultimately, integration in this area should bridge academic and applied education and skills expectations across institutions” (24). Excellent and informative reading with practical steps for implementing an Essential Education.
  • Numerous white papers, briefs and monographs from the Community College Research Center at Cornell University. A few of the titles are
    • “Using Technology to Reform Advising: Insights from Colleges” I met and talked to the young man who wrote this white paper, Jeffrey Fletcher.
    • Track Transfer: New Measures of Institutional and State Effectiveness in Helping Community College Students Attain Bachelor’s Degrees by Davis Jenkins and John Fink
    • “Improving Assessment and Placement at Your College: A Tool for Institutional Researchers” by Clive R. Belfield
    • “What We Know about Online Course Outcomes” by Shannon Smith Jaggers, et, al.
    • “Increasing Access to College-Level Math: Early Outcomes Using the Virginia Placement Test” by Olga Rodriguez
    • “What We Know About Guided Pathways” by Thomas Bailey, et al.

These are just a few of the materials I gathered on my recent trip to the League for Innovation in Community College’s Conference in Chicago. It was a great conference. I look forward to sharing this material with my colleagues when we all get a breather. Might not be until after grades are turned in.