Booking in the New Year

At work, in our faculty work room, is a white board, left over from the days when the long, thin room was an awkward and undesirable classroom. After much complaining, the room was repurposed for its current, much more appropriate purpose.

I think it was my late friend and colleague who first started writing fun questions on the board for her fellow teachers to answer. She was like that–trying to find ways to bring us together, reveling in her new found profession, interacting with faculty in the room where she had been a student, my student, and then become an adjunct, using the room as an office and meeting room amidst the sound of copier, shredder, refrigerator, and ice maker.

But she loved it because she had become a teacher, something she never knew she wanted to be and found out she was born for. When she received her master’s, now qualified to teach more than developmental classes, my friend left the faculty workroom for her own office at the college, now a full-time instructor who became the faculty advisor for the writing club and school newspaper, one of the most innovative instructors I’ve ever known.

My friend left us much too soon, succumbing to the effects of an aneurism she experienced at the college right before her class was about to start. But her friends continued to write questions on the board, the faculty, most who never knew her, continue to post their answers, sometimes half-heartedly, though, as more responsibilities are piled on us, as we are forced to learn more systems that are supposed to help make our work, or someone’s, easier, and as morale sinks lower and lower.

When I returned to work after the holidays, someone had written a new question on the board: What is your New Year’s resolution? Trite perhaps, but I was the first one to answer it–Read more good books.

So, my dear student, colleague, friend whom I miss so much, I will try to stay true to my resolution for your sake, knowing that your spirit remains in the faculty workroom and meanders down the halls and into the classrooms.

Here are descriptions of two books I have read so far in 2022 (pictured above):

Leavings by Wendell Berry–This collection of poems is amazing. Published in 2010, the book speaks of Berry’s personal and our global place, of what its like to grow old and feel hopeless, yet strangely grateful, of continuing to fight the good fight–rescuing our planet from the greed that threatens to destroy it. Listen to his words from Sabbath Poems: 2007, VI:

“Those who use the world assuming/their knowledge is sufficient/destroy the world. The forest/is mangled for the sale/of a few sticks, or is bulldozed/into a stream and covered over/with the earth it once stood upon” (90).

“It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,/for hope must not depend on feeling good/and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight./…The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?/…Because we have not made our lives to fit/our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,/the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope/then to belong to your place by your own knowledge/of what it is that no other place is,/ and by your caring for it as you care for no other place, this/place that you belong to though it is not yours, for it was from the beginning and will be to the end”(91).

Leavings left me with hope–nevertheless. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because my place is good and true and holds me close, safe from a world that does not value it, or me.

The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolf Flesch–The 1946 classic instructs how to create clear, concise prose. I came to the deserted campus during the break to pack up some of the many books in my office as we prepare to move to our shiny new building and I begin my divestiture as I prepare for my retirement. I found Flesch’s book and realized that although I may have read it years ago, I couldn’t recall anything about it. So I brought it home to read before I give it away.

Although the book is a bit dated, the points Flesch makes about the importance of clarity and conciseness are well-taken One of the biggest issues I see in student writing is wordiness and the author offers many examples of ways to cut down on the verbiage.

Here is one statement that reflects the essence of the book: “Plain and simple speech appeals to everyone because it indicates clear thought and honest motives. Here is the point: Anyone who is thinking clearly and honestly can express his thoughts in words which are understandable, and in very few of them. Let’s write for the reader and not for ourselves. Make the writing do what it is intended to” (130).

Good advice to share with my students.

Next post, I will write about the books I’m reading now:

Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh, given to me by a dear friend following a long conversation about this troubling emotion. Hanh, a Buddhist monk, gives practical advice on dealing with anger–not denying it, but embracing it and changing its destructive energy so that it can do good in the world.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, a special Christmas gift from my dear daughter. It is an unusual book, a collection of invented words and definitions to describe feelings for which English has no words–some short, some essay length. Very cool. My daughter knows me well.

Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South by Ed Southern–Ed is the executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, a terrific writer, and my friend. I am enjoying his interesting work, written during the pandemic.

Mrs. Winkler’s Summer Reading Redux

I finished reading Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle, written 20 years ago but still relevant today. I don’t know where to begin talking about it. There are so many things it touched on, including cultural and creation care, the dangers of corporate control of the arts and sciences, of people whose primary interest are wealth and power having control of higher education. I suppose that latter point is the one that resonates with me the most as an English instructor at a community college during this time.

This time. How strange it is. There are so many questions, and I can’t say that reading Berry’s book has offered me any specific answers, but perhaps it gives me something more important.

A new outlook.

At first Berry seems to be criticizing modern science, but it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that his objections are more towards the commercialization of science and how it is being isolated from other academic disciplines–how undergraduate programs in our colleges and universities are moving away from the traditional idea of one student embracing multiple disciplines, working across curriculums for the good of all, to more and more isolation and specialization. Ironically, this movement is causing us to be less and less concerned with specific problems, and more importantly, the people who are right around us.

Early on, when Berry introduces his thesis, he caught my attention, discussing what he means by professionalism, which is not what most people think when they hear the word:

“All of the disciplines are increasingly identifiable as professionalisms, which are increasingly conformable to the aims and standards of industrialism…The professionals don’t care [his italics] where they are….They subscribe to the preeminence of the mind and (logically from that) of the career. The questions of propriety, calling as they must for local answers, call necessarily for small answers. But small local answers are now as far beneath the notice of porfessionalism as of commercialism. Professionalism aspires to big [his italics] answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions. It longs, moreover, for answers that are uniform and universal–the same styles, explanations, routines, tools, methods, models, beliefs, amusements, etc., for everybody everywhere. And like the corporations, whose appetite for ‘growth’ seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. It is astonishing to realize how quickly and shamelessly doctors and lawyers and even college professors have taken to drumming up trade, and how readily hospitals, once run according to the laws of healing, mercy, and charity, have submitted to the laws of professionalism, industrial methodology, careerism, and profit” (pp 14-15).

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Do you know how relieved I am that someone who is so widely respected, a prophet of our time, has written these words that my soul has been shouting for years?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

A publically funded college is a place where learning is fostered for all of the people in the community, not to be centered on corporate or government interests. Not that these interests are unimportant. Of course, they are, but they are best served by a faculty dedicated to teaching students to think and communicate clearly and critically, a staff that supports students and their instructors toward that end, an administration that is devoted to the welfare of ALL students, faculty, and staff. No matter what career the student is interested in pursuing, even if she dreams of being a writer, an artist, a musician or, God forbid, an actor. No matter what subject the professor teaches, even if he teaches the history of jazz. No matter what the staff members do, whether they be registrars or receptionists.

It is not the job of any administrator, board member or government entity involved with a college or university to decide what learning is valuable and which is not.

The quote above raises another issue that has long been heavy on my heart– the insane idea of trying to standardize college-level instruction. Why do so many in higher education think it is a benefit to a young adult to encounter the same material, assignments, activities, grading rubrics, online platforms? Why this emphasis on sameness? How can students learn to navigate an ever-changing world if they don’t start learning to adapt to change while they are in college?

Wendell Berry gave me the answer–because sameness comes from the corporate mindset of “producing” as many “successful” graduates as cheaply and quickly as possible. And what is the sign of success?–a job.

But, I digress. Sorry, it’s the way I’m built. Just ask my students.

Berry discusses three institutions he feels are most affected by this professionalism–science, the arts, and religion. He begins with science and much of what he says has great relevance to two crises in our world today–do I need to even name them?

When discussing the limitations of science due to the deficiencies of our mental capacities (we don’t like to think we are limited but that we are is beyond doubt), Berry says the following:

“The fallibility of a human system of thought is always the result of incompleteness. In order to include some things, we invariably exclude others. We can’t include everything because we don’t know everything…. The incompleteness of a system is rarely if ever perceptible to those who made it or to those who benefit from it. To those who are excluded from it, the incompleteness of a system is, or eventually becomes, plain enough. One weakness of the present system,… is that it excludes all inscrutable and ineffable things, including the life history of the human soul” (pp. 34-35).

When a writer like Wendell Berry, not only a writer and a poet, but also a farmer and conservationist, some would even call an environmental activist, writes about science, he embues his words with the inscrutability and ineffabilty that he sees lacking in modern science. How he strings the words together, how he brings more than simple meaning but part of his soul to the page is evidence of what is at the crux of what I think is his intended meaning.

Science, the arts, religion, they need each other, depend on each other.

We need the complexity, the exactness of science, we need the mystery and symbolism of the arts, we need the sanctity and hope of religion to help bring us together and to help us include those who have for too long been excluded.

I don’t have time to talk about all of the many great ideas in Berry’s book, so I will conclude this scattered review with one piece of advice: Read it!

And with one last quote from the book:

“If we were as fearful of our knowledge and our power as in our ignorance we ought to be–and as our cultural and religious traditions instruct us to be–then we would be trying to reconnect the disiplines both within the universities and in the conduct of the professions” (p. 145).

Amen.

Work Cited

Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000.

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.