Thoughts on Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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.

Reading and Writing

My strange satirical novel has gnomes and fairy “godteachers” among other strange and mysterious students, teachers, and administrators, so this seems an apt illustration

After November’s National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), I had about 26,000 usable (rough draft usable) words of my new satirical novel about higher education in the South called CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.

I am happy to announce that since May 19, I have written 38, 173 more words! I know to some of you out there this is no big deal at all, but to me this is major as I have never before been able to adjust to a daily writing schedule (I do take one floating day off a week, which has helped greatly). I have exceeded my quota each day, which more than makes up for the days off.

I have also participated in craft lectures (via Zoom) by the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the Dramatists Guild of America. All have been useful, but this past weekend I was able to join 11 other writers for an extended workshop with Bryn Chancellor, author of Sycamore, which is now on my reading list. It was the first online Squires Writing Workshop, a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

The emphasis was on the opening of a story or novel. We looked at just the first 1,200 words of the project. To begin with we looked at and shared examples of strong openings. Then, we did some writing exercises and shared. The next session we did another exercise and then had a fascinating and informative lecture about openings. The final three sessions were inspiring and helpful. We had all received each other’s work ahead of time, and all were faithful to read and comment on each person’s manuscript. I got so much out of the critiques, even when my work was not being discussed. It was a wonderful four days, and well worth it.

Look into the North Carolina Writers’ Network–a valuable organization for any North Carolina writer. We have members outside of North Carolina, too, so check it out!! ncwriters.org

And my reading continues–

Here are the goodreads reviews of the latest three:

MOO by Jane Smiley, 1995

***Spoiler Alert*** Perfect timing for me to read this satire about higher education as I work on my own novel with a similar theme. Full disclosure: I participated in a writing residency at Brevard College, studying under Jane Smiley, and she was a fabulous instructor, so I am partial to her work since that time. One of the things I like about her work is its variety. I also love her ability to portray the inner life of animals so that we can relate to them yet still see, smell, feel their animal nature. In this book she gifts us with the tragic character of the hog, Earl Butz, whose “job” it is to stuff himself. Oh, my, what a wonderful and compelling character. The most sympathetic of them all, which, I think, is Smiley’s intent.

Smiley seems to have a bucket list approach to writing, wanting to challenge herself, not wanting to repeat the same style. This is certainly a very different book than her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, and hasn’t been as critically acclaimed, but in some ways I like it better, probably because of the satiric wit, and her ability to meld the tragic with the comic, which is my favorite kind of writing.

Ultimately, the book is comic (the last section begins with a chapter entitled “Deus ex machina”), and ends with a wedding. Ah, I see, I guess I’m a little slow–A Thousand Acres (King Lear)–Shakespearean tragedy; Moo (Ends with a wedding)–Shakespearean comedy.

Clever!

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

This interesting memoir reads like fiction and at times the story is so bizarre and inconsistent that I think maybe it is fiction. However, I know that memory is a tricky thing, especially if you are the victim of childhood abuse, and I am convinced that Tara Westover certainly was.

I see why Westover named her book Educated, but I think it is more about Emancipation than it is Education, and I found myself wishing that she had spent less time with her highly dysfunctional family and more time with the way her education helped her break away.

I also think she absorbed a great deal more knowledge while she was being homeschooled than she gives herself or her parents for, but I certainly understand the omission.

Satyricon by Petronius (1st Century)

** spoiler alert ** Yes, it is considered to be the first novel. Yes, it gives valuable information about language and culture during the end times of the Roman Empire. Yes, it is satire, but it is also quite depraved. Basically Roman porn. I skipped through much of it because I couldn’t stomach it.

I primarily read it because I heard it was the first time the phrase “silent majority” was used, referring to the dead. I found that reference in Book 2 and skimmed Books 3 and 4 but unfortunately did see references to rape, including child rape (in book one), orgies, and cannibalism among other perversions. Call it classic if you want to. I just say Yuck! 

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Continues

I will be adding more to this post in the near future to give more details about these two books, so stay tuned!!!

Also, updates on the novel and on Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

I have had this book for years and started reading it but put it aside. I’m not sure why; perhaps the time is right for it now, but it is a marvel. So much of it is resonating with me now, especially as I am working on a novel that satirizes higher education in the world today. It’s like I’m doing accidental research.

One of my alma maters, Western Carolina University offered an online book club for alumni, so I joined. Why not?

This is the first book we are reading. I am about half way through, but I got distracted once I started reading Berry’s book. However, I am going to be excited to get back to it because I am definitely learning a great deal.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading

The Book Worm, 1850 by Carl Spitzweg

One of my favorite places to sit in the summer is on the front deck we had built a few years ago. Soon after it was built, my husband bought me a nice little bistro table and chairs that fits perfectly there, where I love to sit, sip ice tea, lemonade, or an occasional glass of wine, and read. Every now and then, I will look up to admire another great gift from my husband, our now full-grown Japanese maple.

I squirrel away books I don’t have time to read all year and wait for the precious months without teaching to sit on the deck and read. This summer is no different.

I have never been a fast reader, which may seem strange for an English teacher. Of course, if the writing is not particularly special or the characters are not deep, but the book has a good plot, I have been known to flit through it pretty quickly, but when I want to live with the author and the world she or he has created, ahhhh, what a pleasure to have the time to linger.

And that’s why I love our deck, my pretty bistro table and chairs, the cool Carolina mountain mornings, and the time my profession allows me to read.

So what is Mrs. Winkler reading this summer?

The first book I finished since my school duties have been over is The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash, who was one of the speakers at a North Carolina Writers’ Network Conference I attended a couple of years ago. I had heard him speak when his first book, A Land More Kind Than Home, was beginning to enjoy considerable success and had enjoyed that book, so I was eager to purchase The Last Ballad, especially after hearing him speak. I had The Last Ballad at the top of my stack to read this summer.

The Last Ballad is a historical novel, based on the 1929 North Carolina cotton mill uprisings and attempted unionization of the mills. The protagonist, Ella May Wiggins, is based on a real historical figure. The real-life Wiggins, the mother of nine, became a union organizer after four of her children died from whooping cough. She had asked to be put on the day shift so she could tend to her sick children but was denied. Cash’s book fictionalizes the story but is obviously well-researched and stays true to the time it was written.

Because my paternal grandmother worked in a cotton mill in Alabama from the time she was fourteen until she retired, part of that time as a single parent, this story particularly resonates with me. Some of my family members say that my great-grandfather had been part of an attempt to unionize the mill and was blacklisted, but I have been unable to verify that. Again, my personal connection to the work helped make it an especially meaningful read.

The historical novel is one of my favorite genres. If the book is well-researched and written, I love learning something new about history as I read an interesting and thought-provoking story with vibrant characters, like those in Wiley Cash’s book The Last Ballad.

Way back in July 2014, I wrote about my wonderful Uncle El, who introduced me to the works of Georgette Heyer. Although she is known mainly for her Regency romance novels, Heyer was also interested in history and wrote several novels outside of the early 19th Century time -period of most of her well-known novels, all of which I have read–some of them multiple times.

I thought I had read all of her books until I discovered The Great Roxhythe, Heyer’s 2nd novel, written when she was only 19-years-old. It takes place during the Restoration Period following the British Civil Wars, telling the story of the deceptively foppish Most Noble Marquis of Roxhythe. Like many of Heyer’s heroes, he is decried as a rake and a libertine, but to King Charles II, he is a most trusted and devoted friend, using his sullied reputation as a way to secretly serve the king.

Like The Last Ballad, The Great Roxhythe is impeccably researched and offers great insight into a time period that I am eager to learn more about. At the same time, the novel has the rich characters, witty dialogue, and insight into the culture of the time that I have always enjoyed about Heyer’s romances, but it is not typical of her work.

Jennifer Kloester, whose book Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, is a must read for anyone interested in the period, writes in the biography of Heyer that the author actually repressed sales of The Great Roxhythe, calling it “This immature, ill-fated work” (57).

Before I read Kloester’s biography, I supposed that Heyer’s distaste for the book was based on immature writing or poorly drawn characters, but the novel has neither of these. Since she was a stickler for accurate historical fact, perhaps she felt the research was not up to the more mature writer’s standards? But now that I am reading the book, I see things differently.

There is romance in the book, but not between a man and a woman. The romantic love shown so strongly is the kind of love men have for their leaders and leaders have for those men they must trust with their lives. The Great Roxhythe and the king share this kind of platonic love, but they are not the main ones.

It is Christopher Dart, the young man who becomes the secretary to Roxhythe, who is absolutely smitten with his Lord and expresses his devotion in the most romantic of ways. Kloester notes in the biography the manner of the relationship between Roxhythe and Dart did not seem to stir any controversy when it was published in 1921, but that in 1951 when it was republished against Heyer’s wishes, some may have started to see homosexual overtones in her work that Heyer did not intend and that this is what caused the author to reject the work (58).

I tend to agree; however, as I read more and more of the book, I am saddened that she felt the need to suppress her work for any reason. After all, if one studies and reads the literature and history of the 17th Century, it was not uncommon at all for older men to have proteges that they found beautiful (think Shakespeare’s sonnets). And those proteges had great love for the older men who guided them to manhood.

Heyer’s work, written when she was very young, is charming in its innocent approach to a close relationship between an older and a younger man. It may be naive, but I find it refreshing to read a book, written by one of the greatest romance novelist of the 20th Century, whose central romantic relationship is a platonic one–between two men.

Works Cited

Cash, Wiley. The Last Ballad. William Morrow, 2017.

Heyer, Georgette. The Great Roxhythe. Important Books, 2014.

Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer. Sourcebooks, 2013, pp. 57-58.

—. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. Sourcebooks, 2010.

The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

coding computer data depth of field

Photo by Kevin Ku on Pexels.com

A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

Want Great Engineers? Invest in Reading and Writing

writing-skills

My frustration levels are again rising to a boiling point. To hear from education professionals that surveys show one of the top three skills desired by local business and industry is good writing and then, in the same meeting, hear nothing about plans to develop these skills is more than discouraging to me as a composition teacher.

How can I  not get disheartened when I hear plans to spend millions of dollars on buildings and technology for engineering, automotive and mechatronics programs when the computers in my classrooms are outdated and sometimes take 30 minutes to boot up, when our tutoring center, which has doubled the number of mainly English and math students it serves within two years, does not appear to be included in anyone’s expansion plans?

What do employees want according to the report I heard this week? They want students who can read and write complex texts, but now a student can get an AA or AS degree without taking a 200-level literature course–the very courses which require students to read, study and write about the most complex texts of all. What a world…

Just for funsies, here’s an article about how important the “soft skill” of writing is to the profession of engineering:

http://www.automationworld.com/automation-team/writing-essential-skill-engineers