Busy trying to teach my heart out (which means writing my fingers to the bone since I teach completely online this semester), attending fantastic auditions for our drama department’s upcoming series of short films called Haunted Hendo (I am directing a script my daughter wrote, and she is directing one I wrote), and unfortunately, satisfying the economic and data gods (at least 1/3 of my job these days), so I do not have much time at all to write.
I must express my deep discontent with the state of higher education during this time, only a very small part that can be blamed on the pandemic. I will do so with one of the most romantic of British Romantics, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Take it away, Percy Bysshe!!!!
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Yes, Scarlett, I know. Tomorrow is another day.
And it’s the last day, August 31, to submit to the fall/winter edition of Teach. Write. Here are the submission guidelines. I will be glad to take a look at your work.
CAMPUS, I haven’t forgotten you, you silly little satirical novel that wants to be a musical and is now being podcasted. Thursday, September 2, is the goal to air Season 2, Episode 2, so look for the link here at Hey, Mrs. Winkler, and to all my teacher friends, Hang in there! It’s almost Tuesday, but Monday (Labor Day) is comin’!
I have been busy, as usual, but having loads of fun and enjoying my summer immensely. Last weekend I attended my fourth Squire Writers’ Workshop sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network at Appalachian State University in Boone. I usually attend the fiction workshop, but this time I challenged myself with the creative non-fiction class taught by Zachary Vernon, an English professor at Appalachian State University.
Professor Vernon is an excellent instructor–knowledgeable, informative, and most of all, respectful of each writer’s work. I am working on a book about teaching, which my mother has inspired me to write. When I was visiting her in Alabama after her recent hospital stay and was talking about some of my work in my classes this past year, she said, “Katie, you should write a book about teaching.” How could I say no?
I took a chapter of the book in progress for critiquing at the workshop and received such encouragement as well as fantastic suggestions for improvement. Not only that, but I made new writer friends and reestablished friendships with writers I have met in previous conferences. I stayed in a dorm, ate in the cafeteria, drank beer at a popular student watering hole, ate dinner at a professor’s lovely home, and just had a great time. So good for the soul to be around people, other than my dear family and close friends, who encourage and support me.
If you do not know about the North Carolina Writers’ Network, then I encourage you to take a look. I have been a member for quite a few years and am now on the board. Even if you don’t live in North Carolina, you can take advantage of the many opportunities available to writers, including online classes. I am pleased that I have been asked to facilitate an online workshop about alternatives to traditional publication, including blogging, of course.
Click here if you would like more information about the network and the whole 21-22 online workshop series, including my session: “The Big Share: Alternative Forms of Publication in a Digital Age” (Multigenre).
Just a few days before the workshop, I taught 5th and 6th graders during the drama camp at my church. From casting to performance in 4 1/2 days. The camp was something I was, frankly, dreading but ended up enjoying. More about drama camp in another post.
Before that I had a stretch of not too much activity (thank the Lord), so I did some reading. First was Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age. Again, my dear mother suggested this book to me. Our politics don’t always align, but as she read a review of this book to me when I went to visit, I thought it sounded interesting, and it was. Feeny is able to explain what I have long seen as a problem in American education–the emphasis on where children learn, using children as a way up the social ladder.
However, he does not vilify parents. Far from it. Of course, he discusses the role parents have, especially privileged ones, in pushing for their children’s entrance into elite kindergartens and private schools and then on into the most prestigious colleges and universities, but he explores at length what drives these parents and what the consequences are for less privileged students.
Feeney suggests that the institutions, through the admissions offices primarily, are perpetuating this class bias by increasing the competition and constantly changing the requirements for admission to make themselves look better.
When discussing the current admissions scandals, he says, “The incentives that drive the process leave us in our current unhappy predicament, in which everyone seems to acknowledge that college admissions has gone wildly out of whack, but the only people truly situated to make it better–the admissions officers of prestigious colleges and universities-keep introducing new ways to make it worse.”
Despite his indictment of admissions departments, Feeney acknowledges that the problems of our current educational institutions are a result of a cultural shift where a child’s education is no longer a means to an end but a constant series of wasteful competitions. “This happens,” he writes, “when competition becomes a self-fueling cycle, competition for its own sake, and it consumes more value than it generates.”
It is not only the elite in society who are generating this “dissipative rivalry,” to use a term Feeney borrows from his research. I see this clearly at the community college level–basing the success or failure of a college on the number of students recruited and retained long enough to “count,” encouraging high school students to take more and more college level courses without determining if the students are ready academically or psychologically for those classes, steering students toward business, STEM, and health-related programs instead of promoting all programs of a college. The list goes on and on.
You can see that Feeney’s book had an impact on me, and its more conservative approach to the problem in a strange way increased its veracity in my mind. We don’t have to be on the same political spectrum to agree that something’s rotten in American education today and that we need to work to change it.
The next book I will review is special to my heart because it is a gift from my only child. She is a music technician who loves manga and anime, especially horror. A few years ago I wrote a stage adaptation of Frankenstein, and Hannah created some of the music and sound effects for the show. She regularly searches the manga section at local bookstores for new horror titles and found this version of Frankenstein by celebrated manga artist, Junji Ito. The adaptation is more faithful than most versions I’ve read, especially at the beginning, and the art is simply astounding–truly imaginative and appropriately horrific.
Following Junji’s adaptation is a series of original horror tales, featuring a school boy, name Oshikiri. I enjoyed all of these tales, but my favorite was “The Walls.” Spooky. Spooky.
The best thing about this book, of course, is that it is a gift from my kid–not for any other reason except she saw it at the bookstore and thought I would like it. Pretty cool, huh?
Last book I finished reading before I got so busy is pure escapist fun–Worth Dying For, a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. Jack Reacher is an ex-military police officer who roams the country righting wrong, fighting evil, and working hard to stay alive. In this novel, Reacher finds himself in Nebraska, trying to solve the disappearance of an eight-year old girl.
I like that Child spends time with characters that are often simply glossed over in action thrillers, present just to give the hero someone to save. Not so in this the 15th Jack Reacher novel. Dorothy Coe, a woman in her 60’s who lost her daughter and her husband years before, is the typical grieving mother in expected and poignant ways, but she is also smart, brave, and tough. Since she is about my age, I kind of like this portrayal.
I’m still reading and stocking up on my titles for my trip to Pennsylvania, including the poetry books by my friends at the writers’ workshop and finishing Coyote Loop by my friend Charles Fiore, so be watching for more reviews. Oh, I hope to get another episode of CAMPUS out soon as well.
17 or so years ago, John planted a Japanese Maple in our front yard–one of my favorite gifts from him. About ten years ago we had the front deck rebuilt, expanded it, and added a cute bistro set. When John plants flowers every year, he creates the perfect spot for my summer reading.
One of the things I cherish about my work is having the summer’s off so I can spend more time reading and writing. I haven’t done as much writing as I had planned yet (I’m determined to get caught up before summer’s end), but I have done what is for me (I am a slow reader) a great deal of reading. Since last post I have read three more–one non-fiction, one German young adult fiction, and one popular suspense/sci-fi/horror/just for funsies fiction.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dusk, Light, Dawn, Anne Lamott’s collection of essays about dealing with difficult times and emotions, about growing older yet continuing to learn and grow. I’ve always enjoyed Lamott’s self-deprecating humor and often beautiful prose.
From the chapter “Lunch-Money Faith,” for example, Lamott discusses the importance of listening: “Here Elijah meets God, not in the usual special effects of the Exodus tradition not the roar of hurricane or flames, but in a still small voice. Jewish and Christian writers have seen in this a reminder of the importance of contemplation, of quietness, of listening….Growing up, learning. I am slowly making my way from a hypnotized engine of delusion and self-obsession to being a bit more real, a smidge more alive more often. I’ll take it. I am learning to live more often in reckless love” (106).
I like how open Lamott is about her failings, both past and present, not to dismiss them, but to demonstrate how living through dark times has shaped her for better or worse. She writes of learning to forgive herself and others, of the importance of loving and caring for people for no reason other than they are people, how that includes loving herself–Maybe it sounds Pollyannaish the way I’m describing it, but the book is definitely worth a read. It encouraged me, which is something I always need during my summer-reading-on-the-front-deck therapy sessions.
My sister-in-law Bettina loves to read. She frequently gifts me with books in German. My German is not very good I’m afraid, and I often give up pretty quickly on the books she gives me. She gifted me Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s lovely, bittersweet little book Oskar und die Dame in Rosa years ago, and this summer, determined to work on my rusty German, I finished reading it for real this time.
I’m so glad I did.
It is an epistolary novel made up of letters to God written by Oskar, a ten-year-old boy with a terminal illness. Die Dame in Rosa (The Lady in Pink) is a very old woman who is a volunteer nurse at the hospital, the oldest one, although I suspect that she may be an angel because she appears almost magically just when Oskar needs her most and brings comfort to the boy by suggesting that he write the letters, even though he, at first, does not believe in God.
His letters take us through the reality of life in the hospital but also through Oskar’s imagined life, one that he will never be able to live. It is a lovely book and not difficult for a rusty reader of German to practice on before moving on to a more difficult gift book from my thoughtful sister-in-law.
I took a break on the meatier books and read a fun popular thriller for my latest, another sci fi/thriller/horror book by Dean Koontz. I have enjoyed Koontz’ books since I read his first big blockbuster novel Watchers. I especially liked the genius golden retriever in that book. They made a movie of it, but don’t bother with that. The book is so much better. My good teacher friend once gave me a coaster that I still have on my desk at the school that says “Don’t judge a book by its movie.” Very true. Very true.
I have read many Koontz books since then, and although Watchers is still my favorite, I almost always enjoy a Koontz thriller, and I enjoyed The Other Emily as well, despite occasional gratuitous scenes of detailed meal descriptions–those irritate the heck out of me.
The author returns to his common theme of a basically decent person who is struggling with his past and is caught up in extraordinary, often supernatural, situations, battling his own demons as well as horrendous evil in a dark world.
Pure, horrific fun in many ways with terrific suspenseful passages and lively action, The Other Emily has its moments of deep insight and poignancy as most Koontz’ books do. At one point David quotes one of the most famous lines of Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn”–Beauty is truth, truth beauty”–then goes on to say “Love without truth isn’t beautiful. It’s not even love” (336).
Then there’s more action and the usual twists and turns of a good Koontz suspense thriller. A fun summer read.
Now, what’s next?
It’s not too late to submit your work to my literary journal Teach. Write. I love to get the work of retired or currently working English composition teachers, but I accept work of all kinds from anybody. Submissions are open until September 1, so you have plenty of time. See the submission guidelines for complete information. I would love to hear from you.
Michele Harper is an emergency room physician, and her book The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir reminds me of how much teachers have in common with doctors. I’ve blogged about the similarities before. Harper offers more confirmation of my perceptions, especially in “Chapter Two: Dr. Harper: The View from Here,” when Harper describes her internship in internal medicine before completing her residency as an emergency room physician.
In the chapter, she describes one of her professors, Dr. Jaiswal, a “forceful character” (33) whom all the interns feared and loathed. Harper describes how Dr. Jaiswal was particularly cutting and brutal to Harper during the author’s first presentation and in front of the patient, berating Harper for not completing a thorough patient history and for being ill-prepared for her presentation.
Some people, me included, would have been tempted to give up or simply been angry and rejected anything Dr. Jaiswal said out of bitterness and contempt, but Harper learns from the “breaking.”
“I never forgot that encounter,” she writes. “For the entire intern year, I made sure to ask too many questions of my patients….To the best of my ability, I not only read about the topics I didn’t understand, I also read around them. I reviewed the history in my head and practiced my assessment and plan, making sure the reasoning led to a logical conclusion….That was the last time I was unprepared for Dr. Jaiswal’s rounds. What’s important was that in that very long year, she helped me become a better doctor because I saw the good in her, in the value she placed on meticulous preparation and critical thinking” (40-41).
I am not advocating being “deragatory and cruel” (41) as Harper describes Dr. Jaiswahl, but I don’t mind being tough. I don’t really think I am all that tough actually, but in today’s ultra-sensitive world, I am perceived as such by some students, parents, and administrators. I wish I could help them all understand that all I want to do when I challenge and push students is motivate them to stretch themselves–ask too many questions, read about the subjects, read around them. I want them to learn how to think!
Harper offers many stories of encounters with people in her work and personal life who break her or come to her broken, in need of healing. She writes of what she learned from them and how she has come to embrace not the brokenness itself but the lessons that inevitably come from it.
In Chapter Three, Harper writes, “We had all been broken in that moment–broken open by shock and grief and anger and fear. I didn’t know how or when, but this opening could lead to healing. After all, only an empty vessel can be filled by grace; but to get there, we had to help each other rise while we shed the same tears. We had to get up and start again” (68-69).
Another chapter in the book I liked was “Chapter Four: Erik: Violent Behavior Alert.” Harper laments the bureaucratic bull that she has to put up with on her job that does little to nothing to help her patients. Man, can I relate. She speaks about a 2011 study that exposes the myth that most ER patients are uninsured. Not true according to the study. Most are insured and come to the ER for various reasons, including, she says, because they feel “so entitled from unchecked privilege that even polite questioning causes them to blow a fuse” (77). Again, man can I relate.
Harper touches on other issues that doctors and teachers, especially women, experience similarly, including the inequity in how female professionals are treated in the workplace and false perceptions of doctors, but the positive aspects of her work are similar to mine too–helping people, challenging them to take action, to move forward into a new and better life.
The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir is well-worth the read for anyone, not just doctors and educators; we’ve all been broken, and we all can learn from that breaking–something I want my students to understand.
Harper, Michele. The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir, Riverhead, 2020.
The next book I finished is the young adult fantasy novel Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this imaginary world, the people of the Lowlands are blessed, or perhaps cursed, with magical gifts–some seemingly benign, like summoning animals, and some dark and sinister, like the ability to twist limbs or melt flesh and bone.
Two young people, Orrec and Gry, friends all of their lives, must face the consequences when they refuse to use their gifts, refuse to take life only to help others retain power.
In the end, the true power lies in friendship, sacrifice, and love.
It also lies in storytelling.
One of my favorite passages in the novel is when the narrator discusses how storytelling empowers us:
“My blindfold and my mother’s illness worked together in one way that was good: we both had time to indulge our love of storytelling, and the stories carried us out of the dark and the cold and the dreary boredom of being useless” (194).
This is why I love to write. It carries me out of the dark and the cold. It gives me purpose.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Gifts, Harcourt, 2004.
Most writers I know aren’t happy keeping their writing to themselves. That is why I started Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. I wanted to offer a place where other writers out there, especially writing teachers like me, could share their work. Until September 1, I am accepting short fiction, poetry, essays, and more for the 2021 Fall/Winter edition of Teach. Write., and I would love to consider your work. I am especially interested in the work of those who teach writing, but I am open to all. See the submission guidelines for more information.
ANOTHER EPISODE OF MY PODEL (PODCASTED NOVEL), CAMPUS: A NOVEL THAT WANTS TO BE A MUSICAL, IS COMING YOUR WAY THIS WEEK! NOW’S YOUR CHANCE TO LISTEN TO THE PREVIOUS EPISODES SO YOU WILL BE READY FOR EPISODE 10. IT’S GOING TO BE A DOOZY!
I love it when my summer reading plans fall into place almost magically. In April, for my birthday, my nephew Timothy, a total bibliophile (I love it!) who blogs at The Mugwump Diaries, gave me the book Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. For one reason or another, I was unable to read the book until later in May.
Another thing that was put off was my correspondence with potential contributors to Teach. Write. Turned out that one of the writers, whose work you will read in the next edition, mentioned W. G. Sebald in his cover letter. In the acceptance email, I told him that I was reading Austerlitz; thus began a brief correspondence about the work and the author that helped solidify some of my thoughts about the work. He suggested that I read another of Sebald’s books, The Emigrants, which I have added to my very long reading list for this year.
In his excellent review of Austerlitz on the website The New Canon: The Best in Fiction Since 1985, Ted Gioia, music critic and book reviewer, writes that Sebald “has written a historical novel that appears to exist outside of history, yet this represents less an escape and more an exile. That dislocation is both the tragedy of Austerlitz the character, and the wonder of Austerlitz the book.” This statement reflects my understanding of the book as well.
Austerlitz is a displaced person, growing up in the UK from the age of five, feeling different and not understanding why until his adoptive parents explain his origins. As he travels through life, drawn more and more to the seemingly immutable architecture of Europe, he also explores his history and the trauma of his childhood. Further highlighting his isolation, Austerlitz tells his story not to a friend or relative but to the narrator, whom he meets by chance at a zoo in Antwerp. Their intermittent friendship develops slowly over the years when the narrator is invited to the various places Austerlitz lives, especially London, where the German-born Sebald lived and worked for a large portion of his life.
The unusual style of the book is part of its appeal. Like Nick Carraway, the narrator shapes our vision of Austerlitz. We only know what Austerlitz reveals to him and what we see in the various photographs like those below, displayed throughout the book. (You can see why I think of The Great Gatsby now, can’t you?) The long narrative passages with no chapters and very little paragraphing are often punctuated by the words “Austerlitz said,” reminding us that this is not the narrator’s story.
Also unusual are the long sentences and dialog without punctuation. The effect is not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but stream-of-conversation or narration, like when listening to an elderly relative recalling events from childhood, moving seamlessly from one memory to the next, digressing when the recollection leads to some topic of interest or area of expertise.
As a teacher and a writer, I find the digression from the story that speaks about the difficulties of writing particularly interesting. The narrator has come to visit Austerlitz at his home in Alderney St., London; photographs of architectural wonders from around the world are scattered all about, but before Austerlitz can begin taking up the story of his life once again, he explains how he, recently retired from teaching, now wishes to compile his thoughts and ideas about architecture but is having trouble focusing:
“All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but in truth is at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us” (124).
I don’t know a writer who has not felt this way at some point and time. Austerlitz goes on:
“I could see no connections anymore, the sentences resolved themselves into a series of separate words, the words into random sets of letters, the letters into disjointed signs, and those signs into a blue-gray trail gleaming silver here and there, excreted and left behind it by some crawling creature” (124).
And so I hear the words of the reviewer Gioia again–Austerlitz’ tragedy is the wonder of the book, that the character’s growing displacement can bring all of us, not just writers, not just survivors of childhood trauma, but anyone who feels displaced, into a community, giving us a place to belong.
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz, 10th Anniversary Edition, Modern Library, 2011.
I feel that I am developing my own community of writers through editing and producing Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. It is devoted to writing teachers who want to publish their writing, but you don’t have to be a teacher to contribute. I welcome writing from anyone.
Submissions for the Fall/Winter 2021 edition are open until September 1. Follow this link for submission guidelines. I would love to read your work.
And, no, I have not forgotten my podel (podcasted novel), but I am having some issues, not unlike those encountered by Austerlitz. I am tooling along ,though, and quite proud of the nine episodes I have produced so far and having fun, which is not the only point but a big one. If you would like to hear the podel so far, then follow this link: CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.
In July 2000, then presidential candidate George W. Bush addressed the NAACP to discuss his plans for educational and economic reform, using the phrase “No Child Left Behind.” Despite how that infamous initiative turned out, the speech that introduced the idea was one of the best speeches I ever heard Bush give, maybe only second behind his speech at the Washington Cathedral after 9/11. Regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum, George W. Bush’s call for educational equity should resonate with us all today.
Recognizing the continuing disparity between the rich and the poor despite the growing prosperity of the nation, Bush says, “Our nation must make new a commitment to equality and upward mobility to all of the citizens.” One of the ways to make this happen in Bush’s mind was to equalize educational opportunities for every American. That was the dream anyway. Introducing his plan, Bush refers to “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” of how we have become complacent in offering opportunities to all no matter what their position in society.
In the last few years of a long career as an educator, I find myself discouraged and even a bit despondent as we move ever away from the lofty goal set forward in Bush’s speech. In 2000, the community college was still a place where those, especially the traditionally underserved, could gain a quality education that would allow them to advance in society, perhaps gaining a two-year degree, qualifying them for a trade, or leading to the opportunities and rewards, both tangible and intangible, that come with further educational opportunities. The goal was not only to provide meaningful work through a real education but also to bring real meaning to their education apart from work, enriching their lives and their communities in the process.
However, a disturbing trend is increasing at alarming rates within our society, continuing its spread to our colleges and universities–the lowering of the bar for the sake of efficiency, and of course, cost effectiveness. Increased pressure from students, faculty, administrators, and society in general to make English classes easier. Decrease the requirements and the standard so students can get that piece of paper sooner. Make gateway English classes less rigorous (for their sakes, of course) because it is too hard for people who work, too hard for people with children, too hard for low income people, too hard for people who didn’t get a good high school education or who are still in high school or who have been out of high school for a while. We can’t expect OUR students to maintain Standard English in a college-level English class, can we?
Do you hear what I hear? It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Do we expect less because it costs too much time and money to expect more? Do we not think our students are worth the effort to push for excellence in the name of true learning? We discriminate when we ask so little. It is demeaning and arrogant. Who are we to expect so little? In the Letter to the Romans Chapter 12, verse 3, Paul writes, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (New International Version). Are we, am I, thinking too highly of myself? Am I, are we, guilty of the bigotry of low expectations? Perhaps I am the chief of all sinners in this regard.
But I repent and encourage others in society to do so as well.
What are we really saying when we consider “meeting expectations” as equal to an A instead of the C it should indicate? Does our soft bigotry sound like this:
“It’s okay, Nondescript C Student, that you plagiarized the paper, even though I have provided sources, conducted classes on the subject, and provided workshops that you didn’t attend. You just didn’t know what you were doing. I see now that your academic dishonesty is my fault. I mean you work, right? You hate that job and need at least an associate’s degree to do what you really want to do for a living, but I get it. Who wants to really put in any effort to actually learn the subject when it’s a subject you are being forced to take and don’t enjoy at all? Yes, I think putting in some effort to actually read three pages in the text and view a five-minute video explaining in-text citations is a bit too much to ask when we are in the midst of a pandemic. I can’t expect you to have time with all that you are doing. I don’t really know what you are doing, but I know it must be way too much to find time for the education you say you want. You just want it on your terms, not your instructor’s, am I right?
“I’m probably not being flexible enough. Or explaining things well enough. Or maybe my online class is not designed properly. Or perhaps I am not considering your learning style sufficiently. In exchange for my poor pedagogy, let me just allow you to redo that paper. It won’t help you, but it will make me feel like I helped you, so I will feel better, and you will not feel frustrated and complain about me to my superiors, which will make them feel better. But first, let me mark every single error in the paper for you, so that you will not have to think about how to find problems in your writing and correct them. I mean, after all, you aren’t really going to need to know how to properly revise, edit, or document your essays because, I mean, really, how likely are you to go on and get your BA or BS?
“Besides, we need you to be trained for the type of job that people like us, and our children, don’t want to do. We need somebody to do these jobs. It will be easy with a little bit of training to find the type of employment that a person of your background is suited for. Do you even really need a liberal arts education for the kind of life you’re bound to lead? Why in the world should we as a society expect you to read and analyze a poem? Not that I would ever ask you to do such a thing. Read a whole novel by the fourteenth week of the semester? That’s unreasonable. You’re the first in your family to go to college AND you’re still a high school student AND you work AND it’s a pandemic. I can’t ask such a thing of you.
“Now, critically reading novels and poetry requires noticing small details as well as understanding figurative language (like sarcasm) and the nuance of language. That kind of deep reading, especially by authors outside of your demographic, leads to things like, I don’t know, developing empathy. But why would a person like you need to empathize with your fellow human beings during and after a global pandemic? Not really very practical, is it? Not with the economy in the shape that it is and people’s mental health deteriorating. I don’t want to inconvenience you or cause you more stress, so don’t let correcting a little ‘ole plagiarism infraction stand in the way of going to your low-paying, soul-sucking job. So, I am just going to ignore the little mistake of copying word for word from your source without quotations or in-text citation. I know you didn’t intend to do it. We’ll just forget it ever happened, shall we? It will be easier for all of us.
“And while I’m at it, I suppose I should have a meeting with you to help you make the revisions and edits that I have marked. Oh, you don’t have time for an in-person meeting at my appointment times and office hours? How about some other time? You don’t want to come to campus for an in-person meeting. How about a virtual one? A ten-minute phone call? Just don’t have the time? In that case, since you just need a C or above to pass on to the really important training that you will actually need in real life, let me just find some extra credit you can do to make up those measly eight or nine percentage points you need to have a C. (A person like you doesn’t need to know how to communicate clearly and effectively in English, do you? How will that help you get a job?)”
Okay, perhaps I am too carried away, but I had to get it out of my system. When I write in this satiric way, I hear the truth–too many of us who cling to our degrees, careers, businesses, and positions in society–who drive sedans and SUV’s, live in comfortable homes, enjoy financial security and a standing in society–too many of us who think so highly of ourselves are, in essence, only “insects on the leaf” as the Ghost of Christmas Present says, looking down on “our hungry brothers in the dust.”
And when, or if, our conscience is inconveniently pricked, we try to cover up our sin, by “making it easier” for the ragged rabble, requiring less and less and less of those poor, pitiful students. Sadly shaking our heads, we move to wipe every tear from their eyes, saying, “Well, really, what did we expect?”
My work has kept me so busy that it took me a while to finish the latest choice for the Western Carolina University Alumni Book Club that I joined this summer.
The book is Just Mercy, written by the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama that has been instrumental in helping to overturn many wrongful convictions and reduce the harsh sentences of poor and disabled people in Alabama and around the country.
The end of book discussion included the following provocative prompt: “A critical theme throughout Stevenson’s book is that the fight for fair and equal treatment of all people under the law is a long and ongoing struggle. Setbacks are common and must be overcome, and even in the aftermath of great victories, there is still more progress to be made. For example, the Supreme Court originally upheld the use of the death penalty on convicted minors, but this was later successfully overturned in 2005; still, the fight for fair and humane treatment of minors in the criminal justice system continues. How does this understanding and approach lead to more effective organization and activism on behalf of marginalized people?”
Here is my response: Stevenson touches on the most powerful approach to effective activism for the sake of poor and disabled people in Chapter Fifteen, titled “Broken.” Stevenson recognizes his extreme brokenness after trying to comfort one of his clients on the night of his execution. On the verge of giving up in the face of overwhelming injustices, the author admits to himself that he is as broken as those he is trying to save, but remembering his own past failures, he finds the strength to go on.
He says, “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
There is such humility in recognizing that you are weak and will fail. We are too seldom willing to be humbled by what we cannot do and too often inflated by superficial accomplishments, even when “doing good.” We must ask ourselves if our altruism is born of deep empathy or shallow pity. I must ask myself if I am willing to continue fighting for liberty and justice, even in the face of defeat after defeat, even if I am never recognized for my efforts, or in some cases ridiculed for them. I hope I am, but I don’t know. Time will tell. I do know, however, that this book has inspired me to try.
The last book I finished before the craziness of teaching all online, synchronous and asynchronous, was a book my brother gave to me a while back, and I finally pushed through the stack to get to it.
I’m glad I did.
No one Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is marketed to be a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and there are certainly echoes of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel here. The twists, however, make the novel rise above a simple re-telling. Jade Chang in her New York Times review describes the novel as a “skillful riff on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which revolves around a contemporary black family in a declining North Carolina town,” an apt description of the novel.
Jay Gatsby is recast as JJ Ferguson, a young man who has left Pinewood, a small town in the Piedmont, to seek the American Dream. He returns a wealthy man, and begins to court Ava, our Daisy, who is now married to a weak man who is unfaithful to her.
Yes, some of the same themes are there, but the novel reveals the importance of setting in a novel. This is not a New York story. It is not one Nick Carraway could have told. It is not a story that any one person can tell, so we discover the hidden truths from multiple points of view, all circling around the most unlikely of Nick-type characters, Ava’s mother Sylvia, who is rooted in the soil of her Southern home.
Perhaps because I am about the same age as Sylvia, her perspective resonates the most with me. Her transformation is quiet and not earth-shattering– acceptance of herself, her past, and her place in life. Forgiveness. During the extraordinary days that have been the Summer of 2020, I have found myself learning these things, too.
And feeling good about it.
Here is a passage that captures Sylvia’s self-deprecating mood at the beginning of the novel, one of the passages that drew me into this amazing woman’s story:
“None of that hoping and believing girl was left in Sylvia now or at least she couldn’t be found. The woman she was now didn’t yearn for sophistication, and as far as she could tell she’d stopped yearning for much at all. The woman she’d become was fat and weighed down, but not just fat, dumb too, and always in the process of adjusting, like there was two of everything, the real thing and the shimmering copy that her brain had to work with focus and concentration to integrate. Her brain in slow-mo or she felt slow–same difference. The result was the girl she’d been had evaporated from her body like an emancipated soul.”
What I like is that Sylvia makes an honest appraisal of herself here. She is not eliciting pity–simply telling the truth.
I find that refreshing.
That is why I liked No One Is Coming to Save Us. Although it first seemed to focus on the deprivation of a black community in the South, I quickly saw it isn’t only about the African-American South or even about poverty in the contemporary South. It is about the American Dream and how these people, in this special place and time, define it, how they lose it or make it come true.
My next book review will be about the next Western Carolina University Book Club read, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I have seen the movie version of the book, too, so maybe it will be a book/movie comparison. Spoiler alert: the book is better than the movie, but the movie is very good.
Also, I will soon be unveiling the 2020 fall/winter edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, slated to appear October 1.
So don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Okay, enough with the Fleetwood Mac allusions. I’m getting a little bit punchy. It’s been a whirlwind start after a quiet summer without the usual activities. Sad? Yes, in some ways. I miss being with my friends and extended family but also very healing–a time to focus on exercising, cooking, reading, and writing–for myself!!!
I did work a great deal on my classes, taking my knowledge of new technologies and integrating them into my already strong online classes. (No brag, just fact) Our distance learning staff has been doing a lot of course redesign training, and I am trying to put their ideas into practice. So far, students seem to be responding well to the changes.
Speaking of students, I need to get to it, but I will leave you with a link to a great article from Inside Higher Education about the positive side of remote learning and the incredible job some inspired faculty with a passion for education, like the people I am blessed to work with, are doing.
This summer continues to be a time of renewal for my spirit, but it hasn’t been easy. My reading adventures, working on this crazy satirical novel , and being alone so much have led me to confront many uncomfortable realities about myself–I have lacked resilience and settled for mediocrity much of my life. I’m often petty, self-absorbed and self-righteous, easily angered, hypocritical, thoughtless, vain, jealous, etc., etc.
Oh, don’t worry, I continue to love myself. That’s kind of the problem. I think of myself more highly than I ought, methinks.
Many of the books I’ve chosen to read this summer have helped me to see some of my many weaknesses, and also, thankfully, validated some of my strengths. As always, the two are inextricably bound to one another. But the book I just finished has not only convicted but also bolstered my spirit and renewed my resolve.
The book is Real Christianity, a paraphrase (by Bob Beltz) of William Wilberforce’s A Practical view of the prevailing religious system of Professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity written in 1797. The title alone explains why I read the paraphrase, but someday I will read the original.
William Wilberforce was an abolitionist and member of parliament who helped to end slavery in England. His book, however, never explicitly mentions the battle to abolish slavery, and it addresses, as the original title suggests, the middle and upper classes of the British Empire.
But it didn’t take long at all for me to see myself and my country in the pages of this modern paraphrase, written in 2006 by the man who was one of the producers of the very good biopic Amazing Grace, that tells the story of Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight. More about the movie later.
For example, here is a quote from early in the book:
“We must remember that almost any ideology can be distorted and misused to bring misery to multitudes or justification to the most bizarre behavior. Nothing is more dangerous. That which is intended to motivate goodness and restrain evil actually can become the instrument of that which it intended to restrain. History is full of examples of how virtues such as liberty or patriotism become twisted when separated from a healthy and authentic faith. Twisted men in every generation and occupation have twisted whatever they must twist to get what they want. Why should we expect that some within the Church would not be guilty of the same actions?” (46).
Wow! See what I mean? And it was written in the 18th Century! Wilberforce himself struggled with the same issues he writes about. He is remembered for being a force for good, for valid reasons, but, of course, he struggled and failed miserably at times, especially in allowing slave labor, thinly veiled by the concept of “apprentices,” to continue in the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone. See this interesting article on the subject in The Guardian.
See what I mean? Conviction and renewal. Convicted by Wilberforce’s words and renewed by the knowledge that his failure was, and mine is, inevitable. Renewed? How does being reminded of failure possibly revive my soul? Another paradox of my faith, I suppose. I see that the answer is not abandoning my faith or ceasing to struggle to do good, but knowing that I can ask for and WILL receive forgiveness, I can continue striving to do some good in the world.
Not a bad lesson to pass on to my students, is it?
Here’s another one:
“Money and ambition have become idols in our time, especially for individuals in the business and professional worlds. Disguised as common business practice, these forces are allowed to gather great momentum in our lives. Arguments about being diligent at what we do, becoming successful in our profession or providing for our families seduce us so that we no longer have a clear sense of judgment about these issues. Our work consumes us” (73).
It is important to keep in mind that he is addressing Christians here, not people who do not claim to be believers. Knowing that, these words strike me to the core. I have let my work consume me. I have become as data-driven as the rest of the world. What is my retention rate? How many students passed that essay with a C or better? Let me check how many hours I spent working on the LMS. Look at those FTE’s, will you?
I am convicted, but I am renewed because, since March, I have been working from home, so thankful that I have been forced to concentrate my efforts on the people who need me–my family, my friends, and, my students.
It’s about time.
If you want to know more about Wilberforce and the battle to end slavery in the British Empire, I highly recommend the film Amazing Grace. Strong performances, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as England’s youngest ever prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who was a great friend of Wilberforce’s.
Wilberforce, William. Real Christianity. Revised and edited by Bob Beltz, Regal, 2006.