The big news at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference held in Boston last week was the announcement, tweeted and retweeted, that the Zell Family Foundation was donating $50 million to the MFA creative writing program at the University Michigan. In an Associated Press interview, Helen Zell, in whose honor the program has been renamed, explained the impetus for the donation: “What I’ve watched happen with the introduction of the Internet and media and blogging, I almost feel like this part of our education is under siege. The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, help you understand people–it’s critical. It’s as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it’s the core of the intellectual health of human beings.”
Ironically, I was at the conference to present, with three other University of Michigan instructors, a panel entitled, “Creative Convergences: Integrating the Arts and Technology in the Writing Classroom.” Each of us showed examples of undergraduate work that used multimedia and genre-blending to create compositions that were aesthetically and conceptually sophisticated. The example I showed, an excerpt from Molly Yaple’s four-part video poem, “Love Poems,” consisted of a voiceover of Molly reciting her original text in combination with original and open-sourced video footage, music, and sound effects. The result is an integrated, complex, and moving work of art.
Like Zell, I have had the feeling, when reading responses to news posts or other public forums on the Internet, that literacy is “under siege.” Yet positioning printed literary works in opposition to web-mediated text ignores the potential of digital compositions to not only contribute to our collective intellectual health but to push at traditional genre boundaries maintained by traditional creative writing programs. A glance at the AWP Conference schedule confirms that writers and teachers in creative writing programs are giving scant consideration to the uses of digital media for professional and pedagogical purposes: of the nearly 500 events listed, less than a dozen included any mention of digital technology. Of these, several were concerned, not with literary practice per se, but the potential offered by digital technology to research MFA programs, break into print, or fund publishing projects.
Any survey of the Web will uncover literary texts ranging from wince-producing to awe-inspiring. The same, however, can be said of a survey of texts in print. Privileging printed texts is a form of literary snobbery that working writers can ill afford to harbor. As digital humanities scholar Cathy Davidson reminds us, “To be valued by one’s time requires making oneself responsible and responsive to one’s time.” Creative writers who ignore the potential of digital technology for not only distributing but creating texts risk becoming obsolete in their own time.
Associated Press. “Wife of Billionaire Sam Zell Gives $50 Million for Writing at University of Michigan.” Ann Arbor.com. n. pag. 7 March 2013. Web. Accessed 12 March 2013.
Davidson, Cathy. “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. n. pag. Web. Accessed 19 March 2013.
Yaple, Molly. “Love Poems.” You Tube. Web. Accessed 4 March 2013.
I got a text from a Chicago friend yesterday: Didn’t you used to work at Harper High School? She’d heard the latest edition of This American Life (TAL) on National Public Radio, the first of a two-part broadcast about the school. Last year, 29 current and former Harper students were shot, eight of them fatally. Because these deaths weren’t the work of a lone gunman, and because these victims were poor and black, they didn’t make national headlines. Violence is business as usual at Harper, but this is the first time the nation has been called on to bear witness (normally broadcast on Sundays, this edition of TAL was aired on Friday to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Chicago).
I was a literacy consultant to Harper High School for three years. My first assignment was to support a newly hired English teacher in her first teaching job. It was October, and she had been hired to replace three other teachers who had been hired and quit in succession. Heather had just graduated from Brown University, and nothing had prepared her to teach in a school like Harper. If you heard the broadcast, you understand that nothing could.
I can’t say I was much help, being nearly as green a literacy consultant as Heather was a teacher. Heather was extremely bright, with great ideas. But we were two naive white women trying to teach students who put their lives at risk simply by walking to school. We were completely out of our depth.
Heather’s fourth period English class was a particular challenge. It was a freshman English class. Every student in the class had failed Freshman English the year before. All but two of the fourteen students were male, and nearly all had a known gang affiliation (if you heard the broadcast, you understand why). Rather than try to re-teach the same material, we decided to tailor our assignments to the students’ interests. We invited them to form groups and write plays, which we promised would be given a public reading and shared with the principal.
The students loved the assignment. They labored over plot, argued over whether the dialogue sounded natural, struggled, as all writers do, with endings. While most of the plays didn’t exceed six pages, they were the longest and strongest pieces many these students had ever written all semester.
But when it came time to present the plays, Heather and I got cold feet. Students had followed the first rule of writers: they had written about what they knew. The plays were about drug-dealing, gang warfare, and revenge shooting. They were saturated in violence. While Heather and I had felt it was important to permit students to write about what was important to them, we now worried that sharing these plays with an audience outside of our classroom might incriminate the students and put Heather’s job in jeopardy.
We broke the news to the students that there would be no reading, and we apologized. The students were disappointed, but didn’t try to change our minds. I wondered if it was because they were used to adults breaking promises to them. I was terribly sad.
It didn’t feel right to go on with the lesson we had planned. I reached into my bag and found a book I was reading: Soulfires: Young Black Men on Love and Violence edited by Daniel J. Wideman and Rohan Preston. We gathered around a long table and I announced that we would be reading “Magic” by Tyehimba Jess. The poem’s starting point is basketball star Magic Johnson’s announcement of his HIV positive status, but the piece takes on even more complex and troubling issues. I handed the book to Chris, the student on my right, intending for the book to be passed around and read aloud.
Chris started reading, but stopped when he got to the line, “what did that nigga god do to make him so bad?” Who wrote this, the students wanted to know. An African American poet, living right here in Chicago, I said. Why does it look like that? Chris asked, leaning to the right. I think it’s in italics because it’s a quote, I answer. The poet is reporting what someone else said. Does God have a color?, one student asked, and the students debated the point, deciding, eventually, no.
Chris refused to give up the book. He continued to read with the rest of the students leaning in, listening. There were frequent pauses for clarification. What is genocide. What does “syphilitic tuskegee graves” mean. What are “smallpox blankets.” Heather and I took uncomfortable turns explaining.
It took the entire class period to get through the two-page poem. When the bell rang, Chris was still holding the book. “A black man wrote that?” he asked me, softly.
I gave him the book. The following year, Heather and I wrote a grant to bring Tyehimba Jess, along with Susan Wooldridge and the Funky Wordsmiths, to Harper to help students write their own poems. This time there was a reading, with families invited. Students got up and read their own poems, or poems they loved. One student played the saxophone. There was punch and cookies and flowers. That year, six of the ten winners of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry contest were Harper High School students. They attended a ceremony at which Gwendolyn Brooks herself shook their hands and handed them a check.
I am not saying that a single poem magically changed the world. Chris failed freshman English for the second time, despite his momentary literary interest. I worked with him one-on-one two days a week the following year, but it was hard to keep him focused since his best friend had been shot and killed in September. He taught me more than I ever taught him. Despite my pleading, he never completed his final and failed freshman English for the third time. Eventually he graduated, after which time I lost touch with him.
Heather moved to New York and began teaching in an alternative school in Brooklyn. Tyehimba Jess wrote an award-winning book and is now a professor in a writing program on the East Coast. I’m in a doctoral program in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, life at Harper continues to be a struggle, despite teachers and staff who care and students who want more out of life than dodging bullets. When I was assigned there, I felt that most days the best I could do was to make it slightly easier for a teacher or a student to get through the day. After three years, I didn’t even feel I could do that.
I know that violence is not the only story that could be told about Harper. But I know it continues to be an inevitable part of life in Englewood and in other communities in Chicago and across the country. After thirteen years, I’d had enough trying to band-aid a hopeless situation. But when I heard the social worker on the TAL broadcast weeping as she explained why she wouldn’t be staying late to help police the Homecoming Dance after another neighborhood shooting, I wept, too. Call it survivor’s guilt.
Before I started graduate school, an invention was the work of a scientist, engineer, or eccentric tinkerer. It involved knobs, wires, dials and levers. It was man-made object (generic specificity intended) that was primarily technological: if not mechanical, then electronic.
In my occasional exposures to rhetoric, invention (or, more often, inventorio) is described as the stage when a writer (or orator) brainstorms ideas before structuring them into an argument. In composition, this has come to be associated with prewriting. But prewriting had a particular orderliness imposed on it: outlines, graphic organizers and diagrams were often suggested as ways to organize disorderly thoughts in the same way that an inventor drafted blueprints or meticulously labeled parts.
I have come to see invention as synonymous with creativity or imagination. In place of a metal box with dials and knobs I see a dancer improvising steps, a chef combining familiar ingredients in new ways, a poets walking through a woods, her focus divided between the landscape surrounding her and the words forming a chain of sound and meaning in the recesses of her mind. Invention becomes a playful activity, a mode of living, that invites joy and wonder and occasionally feels miraculous, but is open to every person with the capacity for curious dreaming.
I’ve always been something of a mermaid.
I don’t have a fishtail, or even an ounce of sirenian allure. But I do tend to resist categorization. I like to hang out in the spaces between categories. No surprise, then, that I ended up in a joint PhD program. English for the creative writer. Education for the teacher/reformer. Trying to carve a space in between for the researcher/scholar. And happily found a field that didn’t exist 20 years ago and which I knew nothing about before I started my doctoral studies: Creative Writing Studies.
Like most writers who teach and teachers who write, I find that hyphen between writer and teacher both an exhilarating and uncomfortable place to stand.
I’m probably a lot like you.
So welcome to my underwater salon, where hybrids like us can swim freely and revel in our split natures. And occasionally dive for pearls.
The current division I’m trying to navigate is how to be digitally literate without forsaking paper. I love the feel of my fingers curled around a pen (always a Pilot Precise V5, Extra Fine). But here I am in Starbucks, awkwardly trying to coax the spongy keyboard for my tablet into producing something that resembles English words. I only got this far because Sarah Swofford graciously helped me link.
It’s going to be a steep climb.