Honey Boo Boo, Bill Nye, and Views of Americans

Last year as a Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway it was my job to answer lots of questions about the United States. Norwegians are in many ways intensely familiar with the U.S.—from television and movies but also from personal experience and/or having relatives in the U.S.—but in other ways there often was a deep divide between what Norwegians expected of an American and what I represented to them. For example, some of the questions I was asked were what I would have anticipated, “Who did you vote for?” “What do you think of the current president?” Others were a little more surprising but somewhat understandable, “Do you have a gun?,” for example. And sometimes I was simply astounded by the perceptions that came at me. One teacher that I worked with asked if I minded taking the stairs to class. I said that of course I didn’t mind, thinking that she was asking in case I had trouble with stairs because of health concerns she couldn’t see by just looking at me. After I answered, she looked at me and replied, “I thought I should ask because you are American.” Or take the case of a very sweet student who came up to be after class and said as politely as one can say this that she was surprised because I seemed so “normal.” I asked her what she expected me to be like, and she blurted out, “Honey Boo Boo.” No shade to Honey Boo Boo, but we don’t have that much in common.

There have been many times when I’ve hit my limits with people’s perceptions of me and become frustrated and annoyed. Luckily, I have some really good friends who will listen to me complain about this when I need to. But mostly I think (I hope) I manage to be open and not too defensive.

One big piece of helping me think through all of this is that many of these views are not just based on individual encounters with Americans but also on the way that my country has acted on the world stage since the end of the 2nd World War. That is a topic for another day, or another lifetime, but worth at least noting now.

The thing I wanted to write about today, though, is how much this view of Americans now reminds me of similar exchanges from the nineteenth century. As a scholar of that time period, I’ve read a lot of novels where brash Americans and cultured Europeans just don’t quite get each other. It’s sort of funny to think that these big cultural generalizations haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

220px-Edgarwbillnye

Bill Nye

I was reminded of this again recently when I was reading the newspaper columns of Bill Nye. Bill Nye, in this case, is the nineteenth-century humorist and not the science guy. (I have written more about him here.) I’m working on a slow-going article about Nye and how he uses regional humor to connect his readers into a group based not on location in the nation but on access to and participation in print culture. As I was sorting through Nye’s newspaper articles that I might use, I stumbled upon one that made me laugh because it addressed exactly this American culture/European culture divide that I have experienced in Norway, but it does so in an unexpected and odd way.

In this newspaper article, Nye jokes about how he thinks that more European thinkers would be more partial to American writing if they had the chance to read writing about baseball. The joke here is that baseball writing is very colloquial and lowbrow, exactly the thing that high culture thinkers would not be swayed by. In the beginning of the column, Nye directs his comments specifically at Matthew Arnold, who was famously unimpressed with American culture. As just one example of Arnold’s views, here is a quote from Arnold that Amanda Adams writes about in her article, “The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism.” Arnold wrote about his visit to Chicago, “That which most impressed me…was a certain assumption of culture, which, upon close observation, I found to be very superficially varnished over a very solid basis of Philistinism” (37). That is pretty much peak Arnold and gives a taste of the context in which Nye was writing his article.

Nye writes that Arnold would not view Americans as such a “vulgar people” if he had been able to read more of their great sports writing. Nye is touching on the fact that baseball itself is a particularly American sport that Arnold would probably not appreciate and also that baseball writing is quick-paced and written in haste. It is certainly not the labored over words of the artist.

This is an illustration of Nye’s idea of good baseball writing:

“it looked rather rather [sic] equally for the Giants, for instance, till Slattery jolted merry thunder out of the horsehide, tore the tar out of the willow, smashed the leather, and then, while the Phillie fumblers were pulling dandelion greens beyond the Harlem, the Metropolitan infielder lit out like future punishment beating tan-bark accumulated a one-bagger, a two-bagger, and a three-bagger, straightened himself out like a long-waisted jack rabbit across the plate and made his royal red homerun just as the New York Central got in with the ball and the band played, ‘Tommy Make Room for Your Auntie.’”

This description he imagines illustrating not to Arnold but to Lord Tennyson and ends his musings with “I think Alfred would like that.” I’m butchering Nye’s jokes for description purposes, but in the context of the column this line still makes me laugh more than 100+ years after it was written.

Nye finds that he can imagine that Tennyson would have quite a great time, really, with American baseball prose “unless he has a foolish prejudice against American writers.” This is Nye’s most insistent dig—that maybe if you have made your mind up about what you will find in a certain place/person/text that is what will you will find there. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to consider. (And I’m sure that Nye and I could use that advice just as much as anyone else.)

Works Cited

Adams, Amanda. “The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism.” American Literary Realism, vol. 37, no. 1, 2004, pp. 37–49. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27747151.

Nye, Bill. “Bill Nye on Baseball.” The Philipsburg mail. [Philipsburg, Mont.], 17 May 1888. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025320/1888-05-17/ed-1/seq-4/

.

Advertisements

Valuing Teaching in a Precarious World

As was reiterated in the last couple of weeks with the discussion around the conduct of Avital Ronell and the academics who joined together to defend her, academia in the U.S. is a system that is geared toward the top. This is true in terms of the academic stars that we all seem to orient ourselves around, and it is true of the kind of labor we are taught to aspire to. As graduate students we are trained to be mini-me’s of our R-1 profs who have light teaching loads in order to focus on their research. If you just mold yourself into a facsimile of the star you align yourself around maybe one day you can rise from the plebeian ranks and enjoy torturing your own graduate students. You can’t be in academics too long without hearing funny jokes about how well the academic system aligns with the feudal system, har har har.

That is the system we have inherited and grown up in. But as the larger higher education system around starts to be more and more and more unsustainable—budgets are being cut, teaching loads are going up, pay is stagnant, yet tuition costs and student debt are rising at alarming rates—many people are looking and asking what we should be doing to stop these changes, or adapt to them, or construct new possibilites. A lot of this discussion has circled around graduate education because of the truly abysmal state of the academic job market. If you follow conversations in higher education, you have been reading about and discussing these questions for awhile now. What are we preparing our students to do if there are no jobs in academia, at least ones that pay a living wage? Do we provide more examples of alternative careers? Do we need more unions? Do we need to train academics differently? Do we need to take in less graduate students?

I think these conversations are good, and I have seen some change come out of them. But I am also reminded again and again how entrenched we still are in these models that privilege certain kinds of academics and certain kinds of knowledge.

As someone who is increasingly interested in pedagogy, this is reiterated to me when I see how much we still do not value teaching. We can’t seem to escape the model where research is best and teaching is secondary. This was shown to me when I received very little training in graduate school about how to teach, when I see good teaching being treated like a nice addition to a scholar’s resume but not really a necessary one, when my friends on the tenure track are told to focus as much as they can on their scholarship even if their teaching suffers.

If we value research so much though, one might think that if we study our teaching and publish scholarship about teaching, then that work will be counted as research. And it might have a nice added benefit of also helping your and maybe someone else’s teaching. However, I was on the job market last year, and it was made clear to me a few times that while it was good to have publications related to teaching, it wasn’t really the same as having “real” research on my CV. In one case I was told that a forthcoming article in Pedagogy about PALS was not “academic” enough of a subject, and in another I was told that the tenure committee would be more interested in scholarship of discovery than research on teaching. To be clear, these were both jobs where the fundamental duty was teaching and both jobs had minimal research requirements to be promoted. They were teaching jobs, and it was made clear that maybe my focus was a little too much on TEACHING.

I use these examples not to just complain about my own experience. Rather I want to point out these instances because they illustrate how ingrained in our system the idea that research, and certain kinds of research at that, are best and everything else we do as academics is secondary.

The reason this bothers me so much right now is that I see the devaluing of teaching as adding to the crisis that higher education finds itself in. Now, I realize that the corporatization of the university has much larger forces at work than individual departments or professors not valuing certain kinds of labor. But I can’t help but see the connection here. I think this is especially true of the adjunctification of higher education. If we don’t think that teaching has value, than who cares who teaches our classes? who cares what we pay them? who cares if those teachers don’t have health insurance? who cares if they use their car as an office?

When lamenting the state of the job market with my friend a few years back, I asked her why the profession let this happen—watched job security slip away and spent time wringing their hands but doing nothing really to stop it. I can’t help but think that maybe because it was teaching that went first people didn’t really care as much. They let the grad students take on heavier teaching loads and watched as those students graduated to take on even heavier teaching loads. They watched people be grateful, so grateful for non-tenure track jobs that had one year contracts because at least that was some stability. Maybe if the academy really valued teaching in the same way we do research, defensives would have been hit earlier and people would have fought harder.

The root of my argument here is that we need to value teaching more. However, I do know that valuing something doesn’t magically solve all problems. That it isn’t really an actionable item. So if you have suggestions about how we teach others to value teaching, then I would love to hear them. I am in for brainstorming ways to shift the power.

 

 

 

Casting Pillars into the Sea

IMG_0027A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a hill in Reykjavik reading a mystery novel. I was in the middle of a 12-hour or so layover. And while I had the energy to get myself from the airport into the middle of the city, my brain was not feeling up to a museum and my body was not feeling up for any more walking. So I was sitting and feeling slightly guilty that I wasn’t doing more with my layover and also slightly satisfied to just be sitting in the sunshine.

But after a little time on the hill, I realized that I picked the perfect spot to relax because it was also a place that tour guides passed through and stopped to tell the story of the founding of Reykjavik. I got to sit and hear a bit about the city and read my book in the sun. Adding to that bit of serendipity was how wonderful the story of the founding of Reykjavik is. Ingólfur Arnason, a Norseman, was looking to leave Norway because of a feud he was involved in (that part’s not wonderful), so he left Norway and sailed toward Iceland. From his ship, he cast pillars from his old home into the sea and followed those pillars as they washed ashore on the land that would become Reykjavik. Although he was searching for a place to settle, his new home found him too.

As someone who doesn’t really believe in destiny or fate, I still felt a swell of sentiment at this story. I imagine like most good stories of beginnings, this one is only somewhat true. But the stories we tell about ourselves, whether they contain a bit of fiction or not, are so central to how we understand our world. And how lovely is it that the residents of Reykjavik get to live in a city not just happened upon but chosen by a little magic?

This is all a bit of lead up to say that while I had planned to go home after my Fulbright year (home being roughly the continental 48 states), through some decisions made by me and some made by the universe, I have found myself back in Norway, in Bergen to be exact. I don’t quite have the pillars of Ingólfur Arnarson—his pillars apparently signaled that he was a chieftan and I’m not that fancy—but as I have landed in Bergen, I have decided that maybe, just maybe I’m here for a reason.

So, I will be reading and teaching and trying to write more from this beautiful place for awhile.

IMG_0043

 

Belt Revivals

If you follow me on social media, you have seen me tweet about and at Belt Publishing a time or two. They are a small press that publishes material about the Rust Belt and the Midwest. So basically, my catnip. I have been a fan since the beginning, and in their magazine, they published my first (or second?) non-academic piece.

BUT my excitement for Belt offerings has hit a peak with its latest series, specially my nineteenth-century heart is a flutter. Belt is reissuing late nineteenth and early twentieth century writing from the region in their revival series. I’m thrilled that Belt is reviving important but mostly forgotten books of the midwest. And it’s not a surprise to me and anyone else who has studied this time period that the themes in many of these texts resonate with our contemporary conversations. Here are some topics that these books (or at least the three out of five that I have read) cover that might sound familiar to our current conversations: poverty, income inequality, corporate greed, the state of art and culture in our society, etc. They are not always the jolliest of books, but they often ask clear questions about topics we don’t always want to discuss.

Also, on a very shallow level, look at these gorgeous book covers:
revival_series_1024x1024@2x

I’m burying the lede a bit here, because the real reason for this post is that through a bit of serendipity I was able to write the introduction to Main-Travelled Roads by Hamlin Garland. Garland’s writing is both lyrical and direct in a way that has to be read to fully understand. He writes about the farm land of his midwest upbringing and outlines the suffering he finds there with occasionally stiff but more often lovely prose. I would definitely recommend Main-Travelled Roads to anyone interested in the time period or the places (Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin) Garland writes about, and of course, don’t skip the introduction.

For me writing about Main-Travelled Roads was a little personal too. It was on my comps list and was an important part of finding my way to my dissertation topic. Making a comps list was the first time I was really discovering writers on my own to study—sort of laying down what my field of interest was beyond what my professors or the canon or years and years of school had told me to read. It is, therefore, an important book in my scholarly trajectory and also marks the turning point of me being allowed to become a more independent thinker. Like the best books of our lives, Main-Travelled Roads and I have a personal and professional relationship.

Here is a full look at the cover for Main-Travelled Roads; pre-order it at Belt.

Main-Travelled_540x

 

Bias: You’re Using It Wrong

I just remembered that I wrote this for the incoming composition students at the University of The Bahamas. (The faculty puts together a booklet of articles/resources for the comp classes.) It came out of not only what I saw as an overuse of the word, but also the tendency to use “bias” to shut down arguments completely. It reminds me of how “fake news” is used to dismiss conversations and points to what seems to be a growing problem of not talking to each other but at each other. 

You have probably been taught that you should not start an essay with a dictionary definition. This is correct, but there are exceptions to every rule. And in this case, my entire essay is about the definition of the word bias. Therefore, I would like to start with the Merriam Webster definition of the word, which is “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” The dictionary then gives prejudice as a synonym for the word. This definition is important because in our contemporary usage the second part of this definition is often overlooked. Bias has come to mean that the writer has an argument or a point of view. You might have been asked to critique an essay or argument in class and have come to the conclusion, “This essay is biased.” This is not what bias is. In order to explain the proper usage of the word, I would like to emphasize the interconnected parts of the definition; bias relates to having a viewpoint on the issue, but it is not merely to take a position on a subject. It means that you have a position that might be based on personal thoughts and understandings but isn’t based on facts. Instead your “outlook” might be a result of “unreasoned judgment.” Bias, then, is not just when an article that you are reading in class has a particular slant or angle. The use of the word should be reserved for an argument whose judgment is clouded because the author is unwilling to look at the other sides of the matter. It is imperative to understand these differences because this knowledge will allow you to be as precise as possible in your language choices.

Now, this might sound like a pedantic argument. You might even be thinking that everyone basically knows what I mean when I say the word bias, so why should I care? The first argument against this kind of thinking is the one I just made above: you do not want to ballpark your language choices. Words have specific definitions, and you want to use them as accurately as possible. However, if you are not convinced by the argument that you are simply doing it wrong—we mix up disinterested and uninterested all the time and our planet survives—I have another argument to make. This argument is that we use the term biased, so we do not have to engage with ideas that the article or author is putting forth. Calling something biased has a way of shutting out debate. We think that if something is biased then it is not worth engaging with. This is a dangerous tendency both in and outside of the classroom.

In the classroom, your lecturers want you to think about other people’s ideas on a deep level. This means you cannot dismiss arguments out of hand. Instead of shutting down ideas by calling them biased, you should be trying to engage with them and think about the nuances of the arguments. What do you specifically agree with, and what do you specifically find contrary to your perspective? On how deep of a level can you interact with the text? For example, do you find a point in paragraph three particularly convincing but think the author gets sidetracked later in the essay? When your lecturers ask you to analyze an argument, this is how focused they want your analysis to be, and this is the kind of analysis that declaring something biased avoids.

The argument here about nuance is not just one that applies to academic situations. We also have terribly superficial arguments in everyday life. If you have ever been told, “because I said so,” you are familiar with the level of discourse in many of the arguments we have on a regular basis. Saying “because I said so” is not the same thing as calling someone’s work biased, but it comes from the same desire—to stop the conversation, to win by refusing to engage. This does us a disservice because we don’t get to have complicated conversations. We say, “yes, no, I told you so” and move on. The lack of depth in conversation changes our society. If you cannot talk about complicated issues, how are you going to fully participate in civil society? How can you justify your vote? Your support of a law? A decision about your career or your personal life? The use of bias is just a symptom of a larger problem. You need to be able to justify your positions and your arguments without simply dismissing other people’s point of view.

That the word biased gets thrown around without clear understanding of its meaning is not just my pet peeve. This is demonstrated by an article that the activist and writer, Shaun King, felt the need to write on the issue. In fact, King devoted an entire essay in his New York Daily News column to the discussion of being biased. It is clear that the genesis for this column was people routinely describing him using that term. King writes about progressive issues, has been very vocal about racism in the United States, and is actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. An easy argument to make against King is that he only writes from one perspective and is, therefore, biased. One might expect for King to argue that he is not biased in this essay; however, instead of refuting that he is, he takes up the word to show why he makes the arguments that he does. King writes, “I want to be very clear here—I am biased” and then follows that up by explaining how he derives his perspective. He argues in part, “Every single word I write is informed by where I come from, the joyful highs and painful lows of my past…the community I care about and my very personal hopes and dreams for this crazy world we all call home.” King goes on to examine other instances of pain and injustice that he has seen and experienced and how they relate to his point of view. His argument is that his past informs his perspective, which is why he is not worried about being called biased. King is making a deliberate rhetorical move in this essay. He is taking a word that people use against him and reclaiming it. He is turning the argument on its head to emphasize that his positions come from his own experience.

While I appreciate the rhetorical work that King is doing in his column, I will still assert that having a perspective and supporting that perspective with quality evidence is not biased at all but rather the bedrock of argument. I wish that King didn’t have to write this essay because the rest of us understood that only being dismissive is cheap argument that indicates more about your willingness to consider a point of view than it does about the actual claims being made. However, that he does have to make this argument points to my issue with our use of the word. Critics say that King is biased as a way of not having to deal with or critically examine his arguments. Bias acts as a defense mechanism, which allows people to offer surface-level critiques.

What should we do with this information? I am not trying to tell you that you can never use the word. What I do want you to do is when you have the urge to say that a piece of writing or an argument is biased really think about the word you are about to use. Do you think the argument is biased? Do you mean that the author or speaker is unwilling or not interested in looking at the other sides of the issue? If so, feel free to use the word. If not, think about what you are trying to say and say that.

Works Cited

“Bias.” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bias,

Accessed 10 May 2017.

King, Shaun. “I’ll Never Make Anyone Guess Where I Stand on an Issue.” New York Daily

      News, 7 Dec. 2016,  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-guess-stand-

issue-article-1.2902085.

Questions:

  • What was your relationship to the word biased before reading this article? How does (or does not) the essay change your understanding of the word?
  • The author discusses using a dictionary definition to start an essay. Even though she says it is a cliché, she still uses it. Brainstorm at least two other ways that she could have begun this essay.
  • What is the writer’s tone in this piece? Do you feel that the tone helps or hinders the message?
  • Is there a word or phrase that you hear people use that you wish they didn’t (either because they are misusing it or because you don’t find it to be fitting for what is being described)? If so, explain what you would say to someone to convince them to use the word/phrase differently.
  • What have you learned about academic argument so far in this course or in your other college courses? How does your knowledge about academic argument help you understand this piece?
  • Describe a recent discussion or argument you had with your friends or family. What kinds of arguments were made? How did people successfully get their point across? How could the discussion have gone better?
  • The author calls King’s use of the word bias a rhetorical move. What does she mean by this?
  • Will you change your use of the word biased after reading this piece? Explain why or why not.

Emily Dickinson, South Winds Jostle Them—, and Cashmere: Attempting Connection Through Nature

Here is a link to a short article, “Emily Dickinson, SOUTH WINDS JOSTLE THEM—, and Cashmere: Attempting Connection Through Nature,” I recently had published by The Explicator (this hyperlink should provide access to the full article): 

http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/KRIMbnKhYH9nSz6zqxCh/full

The essay is a close reading of the Emily Dickinson poem, “South Winds Jostle Them-,” and explores how Dickinson uses elements of nature to connect her local New England spaces with foreign places. I’ve also written a bit about this here.

I’m happy for this piece to see the light of day right now for two reasons:

  1. It was part of a longer article that I never really figured out. I might return to it someday, but for now, it feels nice to present a bit of it to the world and leave the rest to rest.
  2. Boy, this has been rough week and a half. I, like many people, are trying to figure out how to be active in our new political climate. My mom said to me that everyone needs to use their power to fight in their own ways. What is my power? Well, it is writing. However, it can feel like the kind of writing I do is not immediate enough. I’m not a reporter, and I’m not Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’m still figuring out what this all means to me as a scholar, but in the meantime, imagining connection across spaces isn’t a bad place to start. If Dickinson’s little butterflies have the strength to commune with the world, surely I can imagine, and work toward, an America that is less awful not because people have been forced to be quiet about their beliefs but because connection and knowledge have changed people.

Failure: What is it Good For?

I wrote this for the first year composition students at my university, and of course, like most things, I also wrote this for myself. I would be interested in hearing how other people embrace failure in the classroom. 

My friend wanted to teach me how to play chess. When I resisted, she accused me of only wanting to do things I was already good at. I, of course, denied this accusation, but it rang a little too close to home. I felt a bit tentative about the steep learning curve ahead of me, and I was nervous about looking stupid while I fumbled to even remember the names of the chess pieces. I was afraid of feeling inadequate; I was afraid of failure.

I imagine that if not the specific circumstances then the general feeling will be familiar to many readers. Most of us have been taught to fear failure. Failure is scary because it makes us vulnerable. It shows our weaknesses. Sometimes you try really hard and it doesn’t work and that can feel embarrassing, disappointing, and frustrating. The problem with staying in this mindset is that if we don’t learn to fail, we are missing out on the opportunity to grow. This is where the importance of failure lies. It makes us push ourselves beyond the situations we feel comfortable in, which leads us to new abilities and new opportunities that we could not imagine in our complacency.

It is especially necessary to fail in the classroom because as Brian Croxall and Quinn Warnick write in their essay on the topic “failure is intertwined with learning.” It is the application of more effort and sometimes new knowledge to previous failures that pushes achievement forward. Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics, notes that he encourages his students to fail in classroom activities since, “By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: ‘Why was that wrong?’ By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed.” If everything is easy, there is no learning to be had. It can be difficult to admit that you were wrong, but acknowledging it provides the first opportunity to grow.

How do these ideas about failure in the classroom generally apply specifically to your experience in the composition classroom? Below, I am going to highlight some ways that we can fail in the writing classroom. Now, before we get started failing, it is important to note what kind of failure I am advocating for. I am not suggesting that you don’t turn your assignments in or stop coming to class. That is not the kind of failure I am discussing. That failure is taking yourself completely out of the game. I am talking about asking questions you genuinely don’t know the answer to, trying really hard and not succeeding, putting yourself out there and risking saying the wrong answer.

Here are two ways we can use failure to advance our thinking in the writing classroom. Can you apply these ideas to your own writing? Can you think of additional ways that failure could be used in the classroom?

Failure in writing assignments:

  • The truth is that writing is almost entirely about failure. If we believe that writing is a process (and we do), what we are really saying is that to get to a finished product you need to make mistakes, muck things up, and then keep going. It is only because of these first tries that we get to a finished product that says the things we want to say. For one of your papers, keep track of every draft you write, whether handwritten or typed. Keep your notes and your scribbles. Print out the finished product and edit it again before you turn it in—keep this edited copy too. After you have turned the final product in, collect all of the drafts you have written and take a look at your process. What did you successfully change? What sections of your paper needed more attention during your writing process? What did you never quite get right even though you worked hard on it? Write a short reflection about the process of writing that paper focusing not only on what went right but also what went wrong. Where did you struggle? What was difficult? And what can you learn from those places in your writing?
  • One of the assignments you will asked to complete this semester is a revision of a previous assignment. Many students want to revise the assignment that was the easiest for them or that they liked the most. Instead of picking an assignment you feel contented with, pick an assignment that you struggled with. When you make revisions on this assignments, spend time thinking about not only how to revise the assignment in terms of the things you want to add or expand but also think about the places you feel the most uncomfortable with in the essay. Make a list of the parts of the essay that you have no idea how to fix or that seem particularly daunting to revise. For each of those parts, think of three ways you could revise or change them. Make a list of all of these different potential revisions. Then pick one of them as the place to start your revision. You don’t have to do all of these revisions. In fact, that would be impossible. The goal here is to not avoid the complex changes you could make but to identify them and start there rather than with simple or easy changes.

Failure is good for a lot in the classroom; in fact, understanding and learning from failure is one of the main keys to classroom success. Learning how to be strategic about failure now will also help you in future endeavors. In 2011, The Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire issue to failure and discussed failure with leading business executives. A former CEO of Proctor & Gamble was interviewed about the role of failure in his career, and he explained the need to harness failure. He said to the interviewer, “It’s not enough to take responsibility for your failures. It’s important to create a culture that turns failures into learning and leads to continual improvement” (Dillon). How can you help create that culture of failure in your school life and your own environs? How will you fail successfully now to help you succeed in the future.

Works Cited

Burger, Edward. “Teaching to Fail.” Inside Higher Ed. 21 August 2012. Web. 15 April 2016.

Croxall, Brian and Quinn Warwick. “Failure.” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts,

            Models, and Experiments. MLA Commons. Web. 20 April 2016.

Dillon, Karen. “I Think of My Failures as Gifts.” The Failure Issue. Harvard Business Review.

            April 2011. Web. 7 May 2016.

Additional Classroom Exercises:
Failure in the daily classroom:

  • When your lecturer asks the class a question, be the first person to raise your hand and take a stab at the answer. Do this especially if you are feeling the urge to whisper the answer under your breath instead of saying it out loud to the class. You might fail here; in other words, you might get the answer wrong or you might not eloquently explain what you are trying to say, but you will have the chance to speak up and say what you mean and even in failure, finding your voice is success.
  • Academic reading can sometimes be difficult. Often when people don’t understand a reading assignment, they give up on making any meaning out of it. Just like in writing though, reading is a process, and it is necessary to read complex material in order to become a better reader. Instead of giving up on a hard read, highlight places where the reading was difficult to understand. Where did you fail to comprehend the reading? Bring the reading with “failure” highlights with you to the classroom. Working in groups of three to four take turns discussing the portions of the reading that you found difficult. What meaning can you make together? How can you understand the reading using the support of each other? How does your understanding of the reading change when you discuss the difficulties with the group?

Failure in writing exercises:

  • Describe an object in the classroom in a paragraph using only sentence fragments. Try not to write a grammatically correct sentence at all in the paragraph. After writing the paragraph, read it to yourself and then read it out loud to the class or a partner. How does it sound to you? What parts are awkward? What is hard to understand? Are there sections where your meaning is clear? Write a short reflection in your notebook about the process of “failing” to write grammatically correct sentences. What did you learn about your own writing? How did the process help you understand the sentences you write on a regular basis? What was surprising or especially interesting about the experience?
  • In the beginning of the semester, with a group of students or a partner, spend ten minutes brainstorming how you could fail in the daily classroom setting. Make a list of all the different ways you could fail: getting the answer to a question wrong, misunderstanding the reading, not paying attention to your lecturer and missing something important. Have one group member keep the list and revisit it a month into the semester. Read over the list and see if any of those failures happened to you in the past month in any of your classes. Pick out one to write about and spend ten minutes exploring the failure and what you did or did not learn from it. The point here is not to judge yourself or feel bad about what you did or did not do. You want to use the opportunity to assess the situation and find concrete ways to grow from it.

How Ralph Waldo Emerson Explained Cleveland Fandom to Me

I am from Pittsburgh, where we win a lot at professional sports, most recently only a few weeks ago.

gallery1202901043_slide

This is from the last time, but you get the idea.

I knew that my friends from Cleveland, on the other hand, were long suffering sports fans. I have relatives in Cleveland, went to undergrad in Ohio, and then lived in Columbus, so I thought I had a glimpse into the Cleveland psyche, but when my friends reacted to the recents Cavs  win, I realized I had no idea what they had been feeling.

200

The depth and level of their reaction surprised me because it was not that they were experiencing joy but that they were being profoundly moved. They went into the wilderness searching for answers but unlike Goodman Brown, they had an episode that renewed their faith.

One of my Facebook friends described what she was feeling as transcendent, which made me realize that the win might be most clearly explained with Emerson and his transparent eyeball.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 2.04.23 PM copy

 

Emerson writes about the transparent eyeball in “Nature,” and it is one of his most famous passages. While transparent eyeball is not the most elegant of phrases, it perfectly encapsulates how Emerson was feeling. He describes walking through nature and the moment when he takes flight through his relationship to the natural world. When Emerson truly experiences nature, he is on an entirely different plane of existence. This is what he describes as being the “transparent eye-ball.”  Emerson becomes one with nature and humanity and God by moving his spirit out of his body into the larger universe. Emerson does not completely vanish because although he is “nothing,” he still “see[s] all.” He is present enough to capture the moment, yet he has transcended the moment.

Houghton_MS_Am_1506_(4)_-_Cranch

via Wikipedia

I know people from Pittsburgh and lots of other places get really, really, really excited about sports, but this Cleveland win seemed different to me. So tell me Cleveland fans, did you feel like an eyeball?

A Few Thoughts on Jennifer Haigh’s Heat & Light

9780061763298

Haigh’s new release

Oil, coal, natural gas. Western Pennsylvania is no stranger to having its resources exploited for money. In fact, the earth in the region has been plundered for centuries in the name of industry, in the name of progress. In Heat & Light, Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel she looks at the newest land use development in western PA—fracking. Of course, fracking is not only occurring in this region (and the scenes in the novel radiate out from the locale to places as far away as California and Texas), but as Haigh knows, the people she writes about in the fictional Bakerton have a long history of living off, struggling with, and resigning themselves to their environments. Haigh highlights this at the end of the novel when she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”

Each person in the novel is connected to the town or the gas drilling industry. The novel follows a multitude of characters from the men who work on the drilling to the scientist whose work is funded by the industry to the stay-at-home mom whose ill child is drinking contaminated water. Before the reader can get too comfortable with any one story, the narrative focus switches to a new person in the community who has been affected by fracking. This structure could potentially be a weakness; I found myself often wanting to stay with characters who left the scene quickly. However, the threads of the individual’s stories are not dropped. They are weaved into the other characters’ lives, even when we flash back to the characters’ childhoods or their afterlives. The structure is fractured in a way that reminds the reader of the cracks in the earth caused by the drilling for natural gas. Everything is connected but all of the characters’ ties to each other are a little broken too.

Many of the characters in the book believe that fracking could save or destroy their town and their individual lives. But what Haigh shows the reader is not only dramatic change in the noises, machines, and people the new industry brings, but also the stasis that can revolve around many people’s existences despite the changes taking place. The novel ends with Rich Devlin, a prison security guard who sold his mineral rights with the hope of making enough money to farm his family’s land, realizing that his dreams will never come true and that even with all of the commotion of the gas drilling he is in a similar place—if not worse off—than when this all started. The book ends with the line, “We are all sailors,” which might make one think that the lesson here is that life is fundamentally an adventure. However, a paragraph before the reader is told what Devlin took from his time in the Navy. He was taught “his place in the world, his basic and inescapable smallness.” To be a sailor then is to be aware of your smallness. Haigh does not critique our narrow lives. Rather she takes an opportunity to turn attention to places and people who find that very often there is little light shone their way.

Carrie Furnaces, Still Mills, and a Baby Goat

 

Last summer, I went to Carrie Furnaces with my dad and my grandmother. The above images are from the beginning of the tour.  My grandmother is in her 90s, and she co-opted the tour a few times telling us about when she worked in the office of a mill in Swissville. One of the other tour participants worked in the mills shortly before they closed, so he told us some first hand stories also about what it was like to work in a furnace.

I also found out that my grandfather actually worked at Carrie Furnaces. It is amazing the things you never know; I guess because you have to ask those specific questions. My grandfather was a stationary engineer and worked in the mills for about forty years.

My dad grew up in North Braddock, and my grandmother wanted him to work in the mills too–because what else would you do? My father had the prescience to turn away from the mills and attend college and then graduate school. That decision changed the course of his life and paved the way for an economic stability that he would not have had had he followed the traditional path to the mills, which were collapsing in the years immediately before and after my brother and I were born.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I was paying good attention on the tour, but a year out I cannot remember exactly the details of everything we saw in the steel mill. (Carrie Furnaces were actually producing iron, but it is hard not to call it a steel mill, or a still mill, if you will.) What I mostly remember is the sheer scale of the equipment. I felt awed by the scale of the machines and the power they represented. The furnace seemed like a force of life that was not exactly god-like but demanded its own creation-based respect.

IMG_0262

I  mean, look at that thing. I was born in 1984, so I don’t remember this Pittsburgh. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it was like to work in an environment where you were in danger of dying on a very regular basis. Standing in front of this furnace, I try to feel the heat. I try to picture the molten iron emerging from the furnace, but it is all to remote to really capture. I know there are still many dangerous jobs like these mill positions to be had, but as someone who has mostly performed intellectual labor this kind of work is very foreign to me.

Yet, it also seems very intrinsic to who I am. The mill provided a connection to a long line of my ancestors who were mill workers, carpenters, and various other kinds of laborers.  While I wear a lot of skirts and sandals and have never owned steel-toed boots, I am a hard worker and can be rather tenacious. There are little flints of steel inside of me that tell me to persevere. Looking at the slanted light in the mill, I can imagine that I got that endurance from the workers in my family who came before me and had to be resilient every single day of their lives just to make it through the day–just to do the jobs they had to do.

IMG_0261

If you are a Pittsburgher, and you haven’t been to Carrie Furnaces you should go and maybe take family members who will tell you surprising facts about their lives before you were born. “Grandma, why did your father leave Scotland?” I asked. “Well, his father died of the black lung and…” Yeah, why did no one tell me this before?

Finally, on a different note, there also were goats chomping the weeds. And baby goats are really, really cute.

IMG_0243