Lineup

This past weekend was the third annual Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) Summer Institute, a chance for Boston-area college writing instructors to spend two days talking shop. Being a writing instructor can be a lonely endeavor. On days when your students are under-motivated, it can feel like you’re the only one in the room who is excited to read, write, and talk about reading and writing. The BRAWN Summer Institute is one of those rare instances when you’re surrounded by people who think commas are cool and revision is revelatory.

Blue ribbon

When I arrived at the Institute on Friday morning, I learned that one of my colleagues had a medical emergency and couldn’t lead her scheduled workshop: could I possibly take her place? The session was on peer review–the practice of asking students to read and provide feedback on one another’s drafts–but since I was scheduled to attend another workshop, I hadn’t read the scholarly articles my colleague had chosen as background for the session. I was, in other words, completely unprepared to lead a two-hour workshop about the pedagogy of peer review; all I had were my own experiences (good, bad, and ugly) trying to facilitate peer reviews in my own classes.

Husky pride

The beauty of the Summer Institute, however, is that participants are self-motivated. How many folks, after all, would willingly volunteer to attend two full days of workshops in at the end of May, when the outdoors and other summer temptations beckon? When I introduced myself as the last-minute (and entirely unprepared) substitute facilitator for the session, I explained that all I had to offer were some basic questions to guide our discussion. What do we mean, exactly, when we use the term “peer review”? What do we hope or expect students to gain from the activity, and what hopes and expectations do our students bring? What challenges do we face when we ask our students to comment on one another’s writing, what strategies do we employ to cultivate a sense of community in our classrooms, and how do we know when peer review is “working”?

Destination NEU

As writing instructors from colleges around the greater Boston area went around the room introducing themselves and describing what they hoped to gain from our discussion, one woman perfectly summed up my experience of the Summer Institute: “It’s good to be here all together in the same room, talking about what we do.” If you care about what you do, you cherish the opportunity to share your experiences (good, bad, and ugly) with colleagues who face the same challenges. Ultimately, what we want for our students as writers is the same as what we want for ourselves as teachers: a chance to share our work with an audience who is willing to offer feedback, give encouragement, and provide camaraderie along the way.

This year’s BRAWN Summer Institute was held at Northeastern University, where I received my PhD ten (!!!) years ago. The Northeastern mascot is the husky, so that explains the unusual number of painted dogs gathered all together in the same room.

Demarcated

It all started with a simple question. This past weekend was the BRAWN Summer Institute, which means I spent the past three days at Boston University attending workshops and comparing teaching techniques with about 80 other Boston-area college writing instructors. Over lunch on Sunday, one of my colleagues asked a simple question that inspired a flurry of conversation. How many of us intended when we were younger to become college composition instructors, and how many came to teach college-level writing by a circuitous or even accidental route?

Terriers

In the process answering this question, my colleagues and I uncovered the wild, weird, and roundabout ways that life sometimes unwinds. One of my colleagues trained to be an actress; one intended to be a ballerina. Another always knew she wanted to be a college professor, but she trained as a linguist, not a lit or writing scholar. One colleague grew up wanting to be a nature writer, and another discovered the field of composition studies after accidentally realizing he wanted to study the science of writing. Yet another colleague was coerced to share the story of how he’d actually flunked out of college but continued to hang out on campus for a few years without telling his family, even going so far as to rent a cap and gown and sit with his former classmates when his parents showed up for graduation. Is it fate, chance, or cruel karma that someone with that kind of history would eventually find himself at the front of a college composition class, teaching?

Parking lot mural

Teachers of writing, it turns out, are excellent storytellers, and we each have stories to tell. When I was in high school, I had no intentions of teaching college-level English; instead, I wanted to become an interpretive naturalist, wearing khakis and a Smokey Bear-hat while leading nature walks. After realizing that most interpretive naturalist jobs are seasonal rather than year-round, I decided studying biology would be a more dependable choice than studying natural resources, and after realizing I had little interest in the dissection and laboratory work that college biology classes involve, I switched to English, thinking a career as a lit professor would offer a dependable day-job to fund my extracurricular nature studies.

Ivied

It’s interesting to consider (especially in retrospect) the alternate lives any of us might have led if our lives had turned out differently: this is the classic question of the road not taken. If you can’t pursue all the goals you ever envisioned, how does it happen that you end up walking the path you do choose? Are our lives a maze of forking choices, each irrevocable and final—don’t look back—or are our lives like a meandering labyrinth, where there’s only one route to our destination, albeit one that wends and winds in a nonsensical and even dizzying fashion? At the end of our days (or at least our careers), will we look back and see how all the twists and turns make their own kind of logical sense, or will we look back with longing and regret, noting the turns we might have missed?

Obscured

As it turns out, adjunct writing instructors juggle jobs that are just as seasonal, unpredictable, and underpaid as any interpretive naturalist position, so perhaps you never can escape your fate. My high school penchant for biology survives in my blog, where I post pictures of birds and buds, and somewhere along the way toward finishing a doctoral dissertation about American nature writing, I discovered I didn’t want to be a critic responding to other people’s prose but a writer who produced my own.

Green Line

The same BRAWN colleague who asked us yesterday if we’d planned to become writing instructors also asked whether we’d initially planned to teach writing or become writers, and my knee-jerk response was immediate and emphatic. “I still want to become a writer,” I insisted: there is no past tense about that. Perhaps the acorn never falls far from the tree, and perhaps an acorn has no choice but to become an oak in the end, regardless of any apparent denials.

Stata Center from Whitaker Building

I’ll admit it. In the aftermath of any mass shooting—particularly ones that happen on college campuses—I find myself harboring an occasional unsettling thought: could today be the day it happens here? On any given day when I’m driving to campus, making last minute plans for whatever I’m planning to do in class, I’ll occasionally wonder whether today is (as the Sioux battle cry goes) a good day to die.

Stata Center from Ames Street

When this thought arises, I’m usually en route to a campus where I teach and work: a campus, in other words, where I “need” to be, a campus where I know my way around, and a campus where I feel a responsibility to protect “my” students. When I’m wandering a campus that isn’t mine, on the other hand—a campus where I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know anyone, and I honestly have little business being—I’m not wondering whether today might be my last day on earth. Although being shot at work is senseless, at least there is an entirely sensible reason for being at work on an unlucky day. When you’re on your way to a writing retreat at a campus where you’ve been only one time before, however, you’re not wondering whether today might be the day when you’ll be at the wrong place at the right time. Being shot at work is senseless, but being shot at a place where didn’t truly have to be seems even more senseless.

Abstract

Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. BRAWN is the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network—a group of Boston-based college writing instructors—and I went to their summer writing retreat last August, when we basically spent the day in a boring classroom at MIT working on nothing other than our own writing: a kind of creative peer pressure where you make a shared vow to write rather than endlessly checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader. Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at MIT, and it’s also the day a person with a rifle and body armor was allegedly spotted nearby, sending the campus into a lockdown.

Ames Street, with Pru view

It turns out there was no such person…or if there was, he was just passing through. But before Cambridge police announced the “all clear,” my fellow retreatants and I did what any sane person would do: we retreated from campus to set up shop in a nearby café, where we spent the morning “sheltering in place” over croissants, hot beverages, and our writing projects.

“Sheltering in place” is an interesting term. It suggests that the safest place to be is right here, right now: given a vague report of a possible threat, the best thing to do is basically nothing: stay where you are, keep a low profile, and wait for the danger to pass. Many prey species instinctively shelter in place when something scares them: when one of our backyard blue jays cries “hawk,” for instance, the feeder birds automatically hunker down and the squirrels freeze in the trees. Whereas the natural human reaction in the face of danger is to turn tail and run, many prey species rely on stealth and camouflage to protect them: by remaining completely still, they play the odds that a threatening predator either won’t notice them or will choose to strike someone else.

Viewing through

There is, I suppose, an eerie similarity between spending a day on a retreat and spending a day sheltering in place. Both activities involve hunkering down where you are, anchoring yourself to your present location as a safe haven against possible threats. I think of Ulysses and his men lashing themselves to the mast of their ship: come what may, we won’t be moved. When you sit a meditation retreat, you emulate the Buddha’s decision to sit and stay under the Bodhi tree until he’d answered the question of why we’re born only to grow old, get sick, and die; when you participate in a writing retreat, you promise to remain glued to your seat until the day (or your writing) is done.

Wiesner Building

When you shelter in place, you trust that whatever threat is “Out There” can’t broach the borders of “In Here.” At today’s retreat, the three of us who had managed to arrive at our boring classroom before the full nature of the threat had been announced quickly decided to move off campus, sending an email to those who hadn’t yet arrived, telling them to meet us elsewhere. As we walked across one of MIT’s grassy quads, one of my fellow retreatants remarked, “I keep scanning the rooftops,” and at that moment I realized that something as simple as walking across campus becomes a bold move when you think there might be a gunman lurking somewhere, watching. As Annie Dillard remarks in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, quoting the medievalist Dorothy Dunnett, “There is no reply, in clear terrain, to an archer in cover.”

Rooftops

Call me morbid, but this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what it would be like to be shot by a stranger. I first started meditating in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting in which six Thai Buddhist monks, a nun, and two other victims were killed in a temple in Arizona. We think of senseless mass shooting as being a recent phenomenon, and perhaps they have indeed increased in frequency and subsequent news coverage. But when I first started meditating at the Zen Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, I often experienced a moment of panic when I vividly visualized a silent gunman creeping into the Buddha hall and methodically shooting each one of us in the back as we meditated, quietly (and quite helplessly) facing a wall.

London plane trees

The first time I went camping, I had a similar moment of panic, wondering what could stop a homicidal gunman from walking up to our tent and shooting straight at it, his bullet piercing both tent nylon and layers of sleeping bag before hitting the warm, vulnerable bodies therein. Again, this might sound like a morbid thought, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic one: in his book A Walk in the Woods, for instance, Bill Bryson recounts several murders that have happened on the Appalachian Trail, including the 1988 murder of Rebecca Wight, who was shot along with her partner while hiking in Pennsylvania.

This way

The practice of sheltering in place rests on the assumption that the world out there is more dangerous than the world in here; sitting a meditation retreat might lead you to question that assumption as you explore the layers of your own delusions. But when you’re pondering the possibility you’re on a campus with a gunman, you can solace yourself with odds and likelihoods, and one relevant statistic still remains: mortality always has the last word. A sniper’s bullet, a sudden heart attack, a prolonged illness: in the end, does it matter what hit you? When you’re shot by an arrow, the Buddha famously argued, it doesn’t matter who made the arrow out of what material or for what purpose: you’re dead all the same.

BRAWN Writing Retreat

Yesterday I almost got run over by a delivery truck while crossing a particularly tricky intersection by Symphony Hall. A group of pedestrians was crossing, and I was the laggard, walking in dress boots. Had I been hit by a truck that didn’t stop but instead thundered past just as I hurriedly stepped onto the curb, I would have been like a dawdling antelope snagged by a lurking lion: the rest of the herd would have continued on, either oblivious to my demise or secretly relieved it hadn’t befallen them.

After yesterday’s near miss, I looked at the photo I had taken seconds before stepping into that intersection near Symphony Hall and realized it could have been my last. Today at MIT, I took a handful of photos on my way to the BRAWN retreat, and fortunately it turns out that today at MIT was neither a good day nor a good place for me to die. Had today’s story turned out differently, however, this would have been my last shot before being shot.

Dreyfus Building

Stata Center

Last Thursday, I arrived about a half hour early for a writers’ retreat at MIT’s Stata Center, so I spent some time scribbling in my notebook as a warmup to the day’s writing. It’s funny how the experience of being on a new-to-me campus–the simple novelty of trying to find the right room in the right building–brings back all kinds of school-day insecurities: am I doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong outfit, or otherwise standing out as a clueless, uncool newbie who just doesn’t belong here?

Stata Center

Outside, as I walked around photographing the Stata Center–itself an architectural oddity–I kept expecting some sort of authorities–the Campus Coolness Police, perhaps–to approach me, automatically pegging me as an outsider: a fake or fraud. Clearly I don’t belong here: clearly I’m not smart enough, not cool enough, not cosmopolitan enough, and nowhere near hip enough to belong at MIT, home to some of the smartest and most cutting-edge scientists in the world. Clearly I’m just a bumpkin from Ohio who just doesn’t belong, but somehow pretends to.

Stairway

As I tried oh-so-sneakily to casually take pictures inside the Stata Center (as if taking pictures didn’t immediately identify me as an outsider, an intellectual tourist just here to sight-see), the irony hit me. Am I really enough of a geek that I think I can’t hang out with (and even pass among) other geeks? If there is anywhere that a photo-snapping freak–someone quirky enough to take picture pictures inside an architectural anomaly, as if regular people naturally did such a thing–could fit in, wouldn’t it be at MIT, famed (or infamous) for its freaks, geeks, and creatives?

Upstairs

There’s something oddly intoxicating–infectious, even–about being on a campus that is renowned for innovation: it’s as if you can sense the buzz of new ideas reverberating in the air. After spending my subway ride reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s engrossing biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, I did a double-take to see a young man walking ahead of me suddenly enter an MIT building devoted to cancer research. Could it be I’d shared a sidewalk with a student who will one day cure cancer, or do something equally awe-inspiring? Stranger things have happened, and many of them have happened on campuses like this, where freaks and geeks are allowed and encouraged to shine, slump, or settle into their own comfortable quirkiness.

Entryway

A few weekends ago, J and I ventured into the computer science building at Harvard, looking for restrooms while out for a walk around Cambridge. While there, we looked at a curious specimen preserved and arranged for display: the Mark I computer, a giant apparatus that was one of the world’s first computers. A wall of switches connected with an elaborate circulatory system of cords, the Mark I was controlled by a re-purposed typewriter, an ordinary device of the kind any writer alive back then would have used. Is the mind so elastic as to see no boundary between art and science, the tools of writing and the tools of science being one in the same?

Stata Center

There was something inspiring in the way the Mark I was preserved and put on display–an outdated relic that nevertheless ushered in its own revolution, its own New World. Today we have no patience for wires, cables, and switches: why twiddle with a manual typewriter when you can text with your thumbs? But every Big Idea has to germinate and gestate somewhere: the seeds of even the biggest innovation start small and unpromising, just a speck of speculation.

Who among the nameless souls sharing the streets and sidewalks of Cambridge with me last Thursday will be the next innovator? Who among the other writers who spent the day writing in a nondescript, windowless room will be the next creative person to change the world?

This is a lightly edited version of the journal entry I wrote last week, before a Writers’ Retreat organized by the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network. Additional photos from the Stata Center are posted here: enjoy!