Friday, February 04, 2011

From Greenville

My first visit to East Carolina University (ECU) has been a successful one so far, at least from my point of view. (You can ask my interlocutors in the Math Department and the university’s current WAC [Writing Across the Curriculum] Academy if they feel otherwise.) I’ve been here for a day and a half now, and it’s been pretty much nonstop action.

I got into town on Wednesday night around 7:30, having left Asheville just minutes after wrapping up my early-afternoon Calc II class. There was still enough time left on the evening to catch a late dinner at Copper & Vine with my wonderful colleagues and hosts Libby and Xavier (holla!), faculty in the ECU Writing Center.

Yesterday morning gave me some free time to finish off a couple more rec letters before the real work began. Over coffee and tea at Starbucks Libby and I went over the feedback she’d written on Chapters 3 and 6 of my book. She seemed to be apologetic about offering her comments with an eye toward reader response, but I assured her that this is exactly what I need. Besides pointing out potential points of confusion, her comments offered up several sources with which I wasn’t familiar before, and easily a dozen new ideas for low-stakes writing activities, methods of providing feedback on writing, and means of making the writing process smoother and more meaningful for student writers.

We bustled off to lunch at the Starlight CafĂ© (if nothing else when this trip is done I’ll able to tell you where to eat in Greenville) with a few more folks from the Writing Center, and shortly thereafter it was time for my first performance, a research talk in the Mathematics Department.

I was well-received and my talk was somewhat well-attended…but somehow the energy wasn’t there for me. It’s no secret to people close to me that I’ve recently found myself a little disillusioned by mathematics: there’s little sense of urgency to it, there’s little authenticity to what I do. This isn’t to say that math is pointless and purposeless; it’s simply that lately I fear I find little purpose in it for myself beyond play-like manipulation or action-under-constraint, a sort of glass-bead game or extended Oulipian exercise. I fully recognize that the mathematics I do has little, if any, immediate impact on the world and I feel that on the other hand most other aspects of my career and personal pursuits and passions (teaching, writing, and poetry) have relatively profound impact.

Couple this with the fact that mathematicians are, let’s face it, not the most outgoing or socially “ept” of individuals by and large, and I feel as though I’m alienating myself from my own discipline.

Meanwhile I’m moving closer and closer to another: right now teaching writing to me seems a much more personal, passionate, fulfilling, rich, and worthwhile activity. While one in ten thousand people might need to know what the independence polynomial of a path-like graph tells us about that graph’s connectivity, it’s impossible to know too well how best to express oneself. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every one of my colleagues in composition and rhetoric is warm and welcoming. I’m sure the discipline’s got trolls of its own; it may just be that they do a better job of hiding them.

Straight from my math talk I walked across the quad with my Quimby (another of the ECU Writing Center folks…both he and Libby attended my talk in the Math Department, brave souls!) to yesterday evening’s meeting of the WAC Academy. This six-week faculty development series challenges its participants to find more meaningful ways to involve writing in their disciplinary courses. Perhaps unsurprisingly (this is always the case in such workshops) there is a preponderance of younger faculty involved in this program, but the various disciplines are broadly represented in this semester’s group, spanning from psychology and biology at one end to drama and dance at the other.

The focus of the evening was The Writing Process, reverently rendered in capitals. Libby (who just now stopped by where I’m sitting as I write this sentence), the WAC Academy’s fearless leader, started things off by leading a “writing into the day” activity. She asked participants (and me) to illustrate the process they performed when writing their most recent substantial writing project. I portrayed my book-writing project as an Iron Chef-like jumble of too many skillets on too many stoves which gradually became more like an ever-revolving Ferris wheel, one chapter on each of several gondolas that got written on each time it spun past the spot where I stood on the ground. It was an intentionally playful exercise that definitely helped me to pinpoint where and when it is I do my best writing, and what I need to perform that writing.

Unsurprisingly, several others’ writing portraits belied decidedly different processes. One writer combined passion and intellectualization in a picture of a brain with giant red lips: a “brainkiss.” (This is the same man whose list of New Year’s resolutions included the perfection of the “cloud hug.”) A scholar in child development portrayed her writing of a grant proposal as a regular succession of polygons, signifying a step-by-step process which began with an idea and ultimately ends by branching into new ideas (represented by the same circle which symbolize the initial idea). Cyclic and circular, linear and direct, all manner of processes were represented. Surely this variety in the final product is expected, and the “discovery” of such manifold means of writing is one of the take-home points of the exercise.

My portion of the evening’s activities gave the participants a taste of the textbook writing exercise I’ve used in MATH 280 and, with less success, in Topology. (I find it interesting that as I type this sentence my 280 students are hard at work, I hope, in outlining the first chapter! I just texted Iris to see if all is well there.) I asked the participants to brainstorm ideas for the first “chapter” of a text on the ideas they’ve encountered in the first week and a half of the Academy, select five topics on which to base “sections” for the text, and then in pairs write two or three sentences on each of those topics. The emphasis through and through was on the underlying process. Though we didn’t have time to review and revise the writing they’d done, I believe the exercise was well-received and helpful.

As always, the informal and after-hours activities provided as meaningful a learning experience as the formal ones. Dinner at Wasabi 88 gave me a chance to swap traveler’s tales of disciplinary dragons, budgetary woes, and ideas for potential future collaboration. Several of my writing colleagues came, as did three of the brand new ECU faculty. Boudica, Irving, and Monica talked about the frustrations and felicitations they’ve felt during their first year at a new school. They dream big, talking about cross-listed courses they’d like to teach and plans they have for using collaborative learning and boundary-blurring pedagogies in their classes. (Think “theater of the oppressed” and “literature of the wilderness.”) The future is in good hands.

After dinner I spent a couple more hours putting together materials for my final performance at ECU, a presentation I’ll be giving in about two hours to the ECU Writing Intensive faculty. I’ll be hitting the highlights of writing-to-learn, indicating several useful types of WTL activities and letting participants play with a few of them. (I’m toying with the idea of assigning a lipogram…)

It’s been a busy, but bountiful, trip. I’ll be glad to be home, and I’ll have returned a richer man.

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