Episode 10 of my podel (podcasted novel) CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical is now available. This chapter features Dr. DAG, the chancellor of the Enchanted Campus, with its fairy godteachers, gnomes, dwarves, vampires, zombies and boojum (kind of like a yeti), among other assorted creatures, like teenagers, grumpy faculty members, and inept administrators. Dr. DAG has a regular afternoon liaison with his beautiful secretary Ms. Subowski, but it is NOT what you think.
If you have a poem, short story, or essay, why not submit it to my literary magazine, Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal? You still have plenty of time! Submissions are open until September 1, for the Fall/Winter 2021 edition. See the submission guidelines for more information. I would love to read your work.
In 1983 I wrote my senior undergraduate thesis comparing and contrasting the life and works of two great writers I’ve long admired–Franz Kafka and Flannery O’Connor. Both authors’ works are unusual to say the least. Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins with a man finding that he has been transformed into a giant insect; Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” ends with a corrupt bible salesman seducing a strange young woman named Joy-Hulga and stealing her artificial leg.
Many question why a devoutly religious woman from Georgia would write stories with such unusual, grotesque characters and such unsettling, even shocking, plots. One person wrote O’Connor and asked her why she wrote the way she did. Her answer still speaks to me:
“To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical is my attempt to follow in the footsteps of O’Connor. It gives voice to my concerns about what is happening to higher education in this country. It is not intended to be my reality, but it is representative of a reality as I see it.
And lament it.
No, the campus in my novel is not representative of the campus where I work or any campus where I have ever worked or studied. The characters, even the human ones, are not descriptive of any person I have ever met. They are symbols only, but they serve my point and they speak for me.
They give me a voice again.
And it’s kind of a funny voice, I think.
The newest episode, that you can access at this link, introduces the fairy godteachers Belinda McBride and Brian Teasdale and features a song with music written and performed by Curtis McCarley, my good friend, former student, and composer for our play A Carolina Story. I had fun singing backup.
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?”
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY! Another episode of CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical is live on Spotify NOW!! And it includes, in true Valentine’s Day form, a love story!! Click here to access CAMPUS.
I am especially excited this week because I think this is my best episode ever! First of all, my daughter Hannah, who is a recent graduate of UNC-Asheville, earning her second degree, a BS in Music Technology, arranged, recorded, and performed Gabhaim Molta Brighde in Irish Gaelic for this week’s episode. Her BA was in Music with a Voice Concentration from Converse College’s Petrie School of Music. The value of her education, one in classic music and the other in advanced music technologies is truly apparent in her recording. I know what you’re thinking, but a mother gets to brag on her daughter on Valentine’s Day, and every other day, too, for that matter. Oh, by the way, she has a job IN MUSIC during a pandemic (not teaching), doing what she loves and was trained for. How do you like them apples?
I’m also hyped because it has been so much fun playing around with the technology that is making this dream of mine come true. This week, with the help of Audacity: free, open source, cross platform, audio software, I was able to record two songs and alter my soprano voice to sound first like a tenor and then a bass. It is a little freaky but totally cool. The second thing I did was download the sound effect of a shower running from freesound.org and add it to one of my recordings. I also laid down background music provided by Anchor, which calls itself the “easiest way to make a podcast,” and I believe it. Anchor is provided by streaming music giant Spotify as an open source podcasting platform. All of my episodes are published immediately on Anchor and Spotify as well as numerous other podcasting databases very easily and at no cost to me.
CAMPUS is my passion project, and I am doing it for fun, but I can also see all sorts of educational applications of the open source technology I am learning to use. I hope you will listen and tell others about my podel (That’s my word for podcasted novel.)
Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the other ongoing project I love, my literary journal Teach. Write. I have already accepted some incredible poetry and flash fiction for this issue, but there is still time to submit for the spring/summer 2021 edition. Submissions close on March 1, and the journal will be published on April 1. See the link above for submission guidelines.
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.
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!
My summertime project is to complete a rough draft of my new novel, CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical. Full disclosure. It started out as a musical, but then it decided that it wanted to be a novel but one that wanted to be a musical.
I know. It’s incredibly weird, but so am I, so it seems fitting. I am afraid, too, that it might offend because it’s horribly, deliciously satiric, a social and political satire of higher education in the South.
Many of my colleagues already know about the book. Back when it was a musical, I shared some of the ideas and songs with them. I have worked on the project off and on again for several years already, especially when I became particularly infuriated with perceived obstacles blocking my path to providing my students with the best education possible.
Oh, my. I can be so pompous at times.
My attitude is changing. Perhaps it was attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference with five of my fellow English instructors, talking about our work and seeing how passionate we all our about our work, but also enjoying each other as human beings–as fathers and mothers, as friends, like family.
My attitude is changing. Perhaps it’s all the months teaching in isolation. Did it take that for me to value the roles of others in my institution? Perhaps. Not that I didn’t appreciate it before, but now, wow, I appreciate it more.
My attitude is changing.
But my convictions have not.
So the play wanted to become a novel, but the novel did not want to lose all of the biting satire of the play because it’s just so darn fun. So, it didn’t. Still a satire. A kinder, gentler satire, perhaps (It hasn’t decided yet), but a satire nonetheless. And I’m still keeping the “I want to be a Nazi” song. I can’t help it. I just want to. And it’s my book, so I will.
But you say, Katie, how can you have musical numbers in a novel?
And I say, how can I not? I know it’s weird and different and really out there. It may not work, but who cares? It makes me happy. It’s creative. It’s about work but not about work. It is helping me vent my frustrations so I will be less likely to take them out on my colleagues, supervisors, and students. Plus, it’s more than just satire. It’s also an Appalachian fantasy with gnomes, elves, the Moth Man, Moon-faced people, hellhounds, wizards, fairy godteachers (yes, really), vampires, zombies, and at least one boojum (aka Bigfoot). It’s also a love story (actually more than one) and a glimpse into the heart and soul of an aging teacher (guess who).
Can you tell I love my book and don’t care that it’s goofy?
So, I’m writing this summer, and it’s time well spent.
Here is the first verse one of the songs:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” From “Ode to a Grecian Urn”~John Keats
Truth and Beauty
That’s all there is and ever will be
I see truth and beauty
When I look into her eyes
It’s been an amazing ride
Since I’ve met her.
My world has opened wide
I’ve only just met her
The Belle dame sans merci
This beautiful lady
And her eyes are wild.
Just to have her near
Just to see her face
Just her voice to hear
Just to feel her fingers brush my cheek
Nothing else remains but she
The belle dame sans merci
Have mercy, have mercy
Help me to see
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
But I feel it, but I know
Truth and Beauty
I see it when I look into your eyes
Truth is beauty.
I see it when I look into your wild eyes
Beauty is truth, truth beauty
That is all there ever will be
I see truth and beauty
When I look into those wild, wild eyes
Are you a teacher writing this summer? I would love to read your work and consider it for my literary journal Teach. Write. Submissions are open for the 2020 fall/winter edition until Sept.1 See submission guidelines for more information.
Just wanted you to know that I posted midterm grades for all my students to see. Of course, because I have open grade books, all of my students have access to their grades at any time in the semester, not just at mid-term. Oh, FYI, by checking the gradebook, any student can see any major graded assignment (and most minor assignments) with a completed rubric or checklist explaining how the grade was calculated (often I include an annotated PDF file for additional accessible feedback as well).
If students complain that I do not give enough feedback, which I hear they are doing quite loudly and inaccurately, please direct them to the individual assignments where they can see all of the work I have assessed as well as any supporting documents. If they have questions or concerns, please encourage them to contact me rather than scrawl rather inappropriate things about me on the bathroom walls. This behavior is costing the college money and cutting into the maintenance department’s bottom line, I have been told.
Students can also, of course, ask me for explanations or help if they come to see me during my office hour or make an appointment. I have always made myself available to students who need help and will continue to do so, but I don’t always have time directly before or after class as I have many classes and other duties, as you know. Oh, occasionally, I am so sorry to say, I must also use the ladies room, though a student once wanted to follow me in there to ask a question. I told him he would have to wait in my office just a minute or two. I trust that was acceptable.
I have been offering the support mentioned above to all of my students for years now and continue to work hard on developing more online resources and updating ones from previous years. If students relate to you any confusing details in any assignments, also which I hear they are doing quite loudly, please feel free to have students record specific information about the assignment in question, including the assignment number, and have them email me that information so that I can make corrections. I can’t correct problems of which I am not aware, you see. I know some students have been saying I must be clairvoyant and have eyes in the back of my head, but I would like to squelch those rumors right here and now. I am not clairvoyant.
In addition, I have always offered an abundance of resources to my students, including thorough explanations and directions for all of my assignments. If students want to know how they can improve their grades, or have been absent from class to go on that cruise with their family, then please direct them to these resources. Of course, you may have to explain to them that there will be no extra credit awarded for opening a resource file. So sorry.
Please know that I care very much about all of my students receiving the highest quality college-level instruction I can give based on my 30 years of experience teaching composition and British literature. When I err, it will never be out of a lack of concern for any of my students but more likely born of fatigue, or short-term memory loss. I am pushing 60, you know.
Any confusing details or dates may even be a simple mistake as I must maintain six or seven online course shells, prepare materials for six or seven seated and online classes, and grade multiple assignments for 90 – 100 students each semester. Don’t forget those pesky contractual “other duties as assigned”–two committees (chair of one), attending national conferences, writing press releases, creating promotional material, planning major events, participating in student clubs and events. Oh, I know, I’m just whining now. Some of those things I choose to do so they don’t count.
Sure, I could make it easier on myself, do less and offer fewer opportunities for my students to practice writing, but I am still convinced after all these years that there is only one way students can effectively learn to compose, revise and edit at the level they need to—by doing it. I know it is shocking for some students to hear that they must write essays in a freshman English composition class (plus revise and edit them too), but my hands are tied, I fear…
by my conscience.
Thank you for your time.
The above piece is representative of work (creative non-fiction) that I would welcome for the spring edition of Teach. Write. Submissions are open until March 18.
Another frustrating day, so another installment from my musical in progress CAMPUS–a Satire of Higher Education in Appalachia. This song is sung by the arch villain of the piece–Mr. Mediocrity. An actor friend living in Raleigh who did a reading there for me suggested I rename him Governor Mediocrity. I might just do that. Anyway, here it is, folks, me venting my spleen, yet again.
Bread and Circuses
By Katie Winkler
(from the musical CAMPUS)
I consider myself
A student of history
The Romans had power
That’s no mystery
But how did the elite
Keep their society replete
With ignorant masses and slave labor
Don’t forget the gladiators?
How did they keep them from starving
Or stop them from harping
About their miserable condition?
Do you know what the secret is?
I’ll tell you
Bread and Circuses
Bread and Circuses
They certainly do have their purposes
Everything will be just fine
If you keep them wined and dined
With a little food and relaxation
They’ll be ripe for some taxation
So give them
Bread and Circuses
Just not too much
I consider myself
A student of psychology
I sure know my way
Just a few things that they need
Enough to go out once a week
We keep open all McDonald’s
And Cracker Barrel too
These schmucks will pay good money
For that kind of food.
The finer restaurants need not fear
The rabble go to Red Lobster just once a year
Just give them
Bread and Circuses
Bread and Circuses
I’m sure that’s what the answer is
As long as we don’t discriminate
Denying advancement to every race
Enough bad food and home entertainment
Will keep the proper containment
So give them
Bread and Circuses
Only just enough
The secret to giving them satisfaction
Is lowering their expectations
This is the secret to our democracy
Let the rabble live long, long lives of mediocrity