October skies / view from May Hall

I teach in Framingham until 6:30 on Tuesday and Thursday nights, so this means I’ve seen firsthand how inevitably the days have shortened: a class that used to end in daylight now lets out after dark.

Sunset from 2nd floor women's restroom

I teach my afternoon class in May Hall, where my office is also located. May Hall is perched atop a hill, and its stairwells have west-facing windows that offer lovely views of distant hills and afternoon sunsets. October is a busy month for professors, so I haven’t had much time to go leaf-peeping. On late October afternoons, however, you needn’t go far to enjoy the seasonal scenery.

Six word memoirs

This past Friday was the National Day on Writing, and for the first time, Framingham State hosted an event sponsored by the English Department and the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA). Among the day’s activities was a six-word memoir wall where students, faculty, and staff posted colorful sticky-notes telling the (brief) stories of their lives.

More memoirs

Capturing your life in six words sounds difficult, but it’s fun and even addictive once you try it. (You can read some examples here.) On the first day of my American Short Story class each semester, I tell students the apocryphal legend of Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” We debate the larger story behind these words: who placed the ad, why were the shoes never worn, and is the baby who should have worn them alive, dead, or never born?

The best people are English majors

It turns out you can say a lot in only a few words, and every semester my students and I try our hands at writing our own six-word memoirs. If you had only six words to share your life story with strangers, which six words would you choose? A six-word version of my story I often share with students is “Went to college, never came home,” but other six-word accounts of my life are equally accurate, like “Still writing after all these years.”

From today's National Day on Writing event. #WhyIWrite

At Friday’s event, we also asked students, faculty, and anyone passing by to pose with one of our #WhyIWrite whiteboards. Just as everyone has a life story to tell, everyone has their own reasons for writing. (You can see some of them here.) Some of us write to understand our lives, some of us write to escape them, and some of us write to share our experience. Some of us struggle to explain exactly why we write; we just know it will take far more than six words to say.

Sprawling oak

The week after spring semester grades are due is devoted to faculty meetings, retreats, and professional development workshops: a chance to sit and talk with colleagues you’ve seen only in passing the rest of the semester. Although I’m no fan of meetings, I appreciate the chance to debrief after the end of a busy semester: what worked? What didn’t? What do we want to do moving forward?

Parking structure

If nothing else, a week of meetings gives faculty a chance to enjoy campus when it is at its lush and leafy best, without any students around to appreciate it. Having pushed so hard to finish the semester and its great gush of final grading, I find it soothing to be around the simple surety of leafing trees and greening grass.

Bulletin board

I teach early until late on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, with my first class starting at 8:30 am and my last class ending at 6:30 pm. This means I have a big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, and I typically spend that time in my office grading papers, prepping classes, and meeting with students. On any given Tuesday or Thursday, I spend the entire day in May Hall, all my classes and office being located there.

This isn't me, but I kind of wish it was.

My Fitbit has an activity reminder that buzzes near the end of any daytime hour I haven’t logged 250 steps. When I’m teaching, there’s no need for reminders, as I pace and gesticulate, walking around the classroom and trying to keep my students awake. But during that big chunk of time between my morning and afternoon classes, when I’m in my office tending to sedentary tasks, I appreciate an occasional nudge (or buzz) to get moving.

Wire sculpture

There’s no telling how many miles I’ve walked in May Hall this semester. My office is on the second floor, and I’ve learned I can log 250 steps by going upstairs, walking through the History department on the third floor, walking through the Art department on the fourth floor, and then retracing my steps through History and back to English. If I get tired of that route, I can walk downstairs and past the first floor classrooms, through the basement with its ceramic studios and kilns, and back, taking quick peeks into the rooms I pass.

When the weather’s nicer, I’ll probably venture outside to walk around campus, but in winter time, walking laps through May Hall does the trick: it pulls me away from my desk and gets my blood moving, and it gives me an excuse to check out the art exhibits on display in the hallways and in quiet corners.

Art department stairwell

This week I heard a radio story about a former inmate who ran his first marathon in prison, logging 26.2 miles on a treadmill last April 18: Marathon Monday. This year, he’s out of prison and is running the actual Boston Marathon: same mileage, but a far more interesting route. I’ve never run a marathon, but if you can do it on a treadmill, I suppose there’s nothing stopping me from racking up 26.2 miles (eventually) in May Hall.

Ouroboros

Last week I briefly browsed a new exhibit at the Mazmanian Gallery at Framingham State University: Ouroboros, a set of works on paper by Jacquelyn Gleisner. The exhibit is colorful, with folded paper cones congregating on the floor and a long paper scroll unwound along one wall. On the facing wall is a shelf displaying filled watercolor books–sketchbooks like the one A bought me for Christmas–filled with paintings made over traced outlines of human hands.

Sketchbooks

Beside these finished books was a blank sketchbook set out for visitors to trace their own hand, which I immediately did. Gleisner will, presumably, use this book in her future work, but that’s not what enchanted me about it. Instead, I was excited to realize I could easily use that sketchbook A gave me to make my very own “handbook”: tracings of my own human hands filled in with color, a one-of-a-kind, personalized coloring book.

Ouroboros

That is, I think, the best effect an exhibit or work of art can have: not the bitter accusation “Even I could to that” but the awed realization “Even I could do that!” There’s no reason you should leave an art exhibit feeling dispirited, as if the act of inspiration is over and done. Instead, you should leave an exhibit feeling inspired, your view of the world and its possibilities expanded. If any given artist can transform the lifeless stuff of paper, pen, and paint into something interesting, why can’t I do that, too?

Ouroboros

This is why I like to walk up to the fourth floor of May Hall during my office hours: it’s a chance to see what anonymous undergraduates are doing in their art classes. It’s heartening to see beginners–many of them non-majors who don’t claim to be artists–exploring new media. It’s like watching nestling birds stretch and flex their wings. You know these fragile creatures will range far and wide once they fledge and fly, but for now, their promise hasn’t yet earned its feathers.

Ouroboros

A large part of the appeal of any artwork is its tactile quality: it thrills me to recognize the works of human hands. Writers and artists share paper in common: we both fill notebooks, and we both know the smudge of pencil-lead and ink. I like the idea of an art project that involves the filling of pages, as that is something I’ve done as a journal-keeper for years upon years. Slowly, I am compiling a library of works made by hand: filled journal pages, and now, perhaps, sketchbooks filled with paintings and drawings and doodles. Filled notebooks are tactile things made by human hands, brimming with the intimacy of pen and pencil on paper.

Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

No more interviews with vampires.

Being a professor is like working inside germy Petri dish. Because college students are perpetually sleep-deprived, stressed, and crammed into crowded residence halls, they are often sick, and every semester, colds, flu, and other infectious ailments circulate freely on campus.

I’ve learned to take the usual precautions to protect my health, like washing my hands frequently and trying to keep a respectful distance from students who seem obviously ill. At least one of my teaching colleagues at Framingham State, however, has taken these precautionary measures to the next level, pinning a cluster of garlic cloves to his office door to fend off vampires. You can never be too careful.