James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the life of a young jazz musician and addict, as seen through the eyes of his older brother. The inciting incident—what prompts the older brother to tell Sonny’s story—is a police report in the newspaper, citing Sonny’s arrest the night before. Reading that brief story, one that reduces his brother to someone who “peddle[s] and us[es] heroin” (813), leads the older-brother-narrator to meditate on the events that led to Sonny’s incarceration. The news of his arrest—albeit a brief item in the paper—plays a critical role in the opening paragraph, providing not only the inciting incident but also a counterpoint for the improvisation that breathes life into Sonny’s character. Despite the narrator’s initial dislike of Sonny’s music, the structure of his own storytelling mimics the composition of jazz, underscoring the kinship of his nonlinear, polyphonic story and the piano playing of his brother.

In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator recounts how he thought about Sonny all day “while [he] taught [his] classes algebra” (813). Placing the narrator in the classroom gives Baldwin the opportunity both to show how the students remind the narrator of Sonny as a youth and how the narrator’s occupation further differentiates him from his younger brother. Unlike the algebra that the narrator teaches, Sonny’s music and his life are disjointed.

As the narrator continues to reflect on his brother’s disjointed life, his thoughts are punctuated with the sound of the school bell and a boy “whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple” (814). Those noises create the offbeat rhythms of syncopation, signature sounds of jazz. The story’s syncopation builds as it takes an unexpected turn when the narrator encounters an old neighborhood friend of Sonny’s, another heroin addict who engages him in a conversation about Sonny’s arrest. That dialogue between the narrator and the junkie leads the narrator’s story back to the newspaper report, while the juke box at a nearby bar “blast[s] away with something black and bouncy” (816).

Along with the story’s syncopation, its polyphony—another defining characteristic of jazz—builds, adding to the story’s voices the words of Sonny, himself, first in the pages of his letter and later in his face-to-face conversations with the narrator. Sonny’s return to New York after the war prompts the narrator to think back on the story of his father witnessing the death of his own brother, a young guitarist run over by a drunken carload of white men. That story, told to the narrator by his mother, introduces not only the voice of his mother but also his father’s voice, indirectly—as well as the scream of the dying brother, the narrator’s uncle, and the guitar strings “flying” (825) as the car rolls over him.

The sounds of the uncle’s gruesome death aren’t the only notes of tragedy sung as the story’s polyphony builds. The narrator’s two-year-old daughter, Grace—whose death makes Sonny’s trouble real—dies from polio: “[T]he reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel [the narrator’s wife] says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (833).

Such tragedies leave little wonder why Sonny or anyone else might turn to music or drugs, or both, as a way, in Sonny’s words, “to keep from shaking to pieces” (837). The link between heroin and jazz is one that Baldwin first makes implicitly, when Sonny mentions Bird (Charlie Parker) to the narrator, who has no idea who Parker is (828). Though Sonny doesn’t refer to Parker’s heroin use, his addiction—as legendary as his musical genius and inextricably tied to it—is likely in the forefront of the minds of many readers who see the parallels between Parker and Sonny.

That implicit connection between music and heroin becomes explicit later in the story when Sonny reflects on the singing voice of the tambourine player at the street revival: “‘When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly, ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant—and sure’” (836).

In the last pages of the story, the narrator accompanies Sonny to a jazz club downtown, where he listens to him perform. Finally, with that performance, Sonny’s piano and his bandmates’ bass, trumpet, and drums join the polyphonic voices of the narrative. For the narrator, the quartet’s jazz remains a foreign language. In the narrator’s words, “I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard” (843). Yet despite the alien quality of what he hears, the narrator experiences an epiphany in the night club—not about the particular notes he hears, but rather about their aim:

He [Creole] and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. (843)

With those words, the narrator begins to make meaning—not of Sonny’s particular jazz stylings but of his striving to tell old stories in new ways. The climax of Sonny’s set is also the epiphany of the narrator’s own polyphonic, syncopated, narrative. As the narrator observes of Creole, Sonny’s bandleader, he “seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues” (843). And as Baldwin’s readers listen, they may say: These are his brother’s blues, too.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 813-44.

In “Just One More Game . . . ,” journalist and critic Sam Anderson examines the appeal of hand-held video games—Tetris and its offspring—observing the concurrence of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and Japanese game-maker Nintendo’s introduction of the Game Boy, the hand-held device that freed gamers to play wherever they chose. No longer were they confined to play within the walls of rec rooms and arcades.

The theme of walls that Anderson introduces in his opening paragraph is one he returns to with considerable effect. So effective is his thematic approach that readers who first encountered his essay in The New York Times Magazine were unlikely to notice the apparent absence of a thesis. However, for students and teachers who are introduced to Anderson’s essay in the pages of The Norton Field Guide to Writing, the choice to present it as a model textual analysis is a puzzling one. In the commentary that follows Anderson’s essay, the textbook’s authors note that “[h]e interprets the ‘gamification’ of American culture positively and provides evidence from experts as well as the games themselves” (110), but what the authors cite as textual evidence from experts are in fact alternate takes on an obsession for which Anderson is clearly ambivalent.

Early in his essay, when Anderson first applies the term “stupid games” to Tetris and its progeny, he notes that he uses that moniker “half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I’ve lost to them” (106). Evidence of Anderson’s love-hate relationship with so-called stupid games recurs in the paragraphs that follow, where he deftly places hand-held games in cultural and historical context, turning to Monopoly, Risk, and Twister as the products of the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Sexual Revolution, respectively. From those popular, pre-digital games, Anderson shifts his attention back to Tetris, observing that “[i]t was invented exactly when and where you would expect—in a Soviet computer lab in 1984—and its game play reflects this origin” (106). Thus, Anderson illustrates how Tetris, too, is a product of its time and place. But his close examination of Tetris that follows does not function solely to provide more cultural and historical context, it also serves as an opportunity for Anderson to return to his theme of wall-building and to vent the frustration that serves as his refrain:

The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain [. . .] but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is a bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves. (106)

In the second part of his essay, Anderson turns away from the cultural and historical context of games to the perspectives of game designers, not to provide textual evidence for his thesis—which still isn’t clear—but instead to offer points of contrast. In response to game designer Jane McGonigal’s claim that games are “a gateway to our ideal psychological state” (108), Anderson writes that “[a]lthough there is a certain utopian appeal to McGonigal’s ‘games for change’ model, I worry about the dystopic potential of gamification” (109). Anderson contrasts his concerns with the observations of a second game designer, Frank Lantz, noting that he “seem[s] undisturbed by the dark side of stupid games” (109), and pronounces them “far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations” (109).

In the final paragraph of his essay, Anderson cites a third game designer, not to support his thesis but, instead, finally, to introduce it. He follows Sid Meier’s definition of a game—“‘a series of interesting choices’” (110)—with his response: “Maybe that’s the secret genius of stupid games: they force us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters most, moment to moment, in our lives” (110). And so he ends his essay with his thesis. Game over.

Fig. 1: Graphic representation of textual analyses (W.W. Norton)

Presenting an additional perspective on games, responding to it, and returning to the theme of wall-building are all effective moves to make in a conclusion and are ones that frequently appear in lists of rhetorical strategies for closure. For that reason, Anderson’s conclusion stands as a valuable model. Yet the essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing as a model for textual analysis remains troublesome, especially considering the graphic representation for organization that follows. In the graphic for a thematically organized textual analysis (fig. 1, row 1), the thesis appears in the first part of the three-part structure, not in the third part—and certainly not in the last lines of the essay, as Anderson’s does.

His essay is better suited for one of the textbook chapters devoted to mixed-genre writing. There, in Chapter Twenty-one or Sixty-nine, “Just One More Game . . .” could serve an example of an essay that blends the textual analysis essential to many arguments, with the questioning, speculative tone that’s a key feature of reflection. Anderson reflects on stupid games, in his conclusion, realizing that they “are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: the internal walls we build to compartmentalize our time, our attention, our lives” (110). Relegating writing to a category, as textbooks do, is another form of wall-building. Pointing out the misplacement of Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . . ” isn’t a call to tear them down but rather an argument for launching Anderson over the wall, angry bird that he is.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 105-110.

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Commentary. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games” by Sam Anderson. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, p. 110.

—. Ways of Organizing a Textual Analysis: A Graphic Representation. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, p. 123.

On Friday, October 5, students in Professor Kim Stinson’s play production class at Catawba Valley Community College performed a dramatic reading of Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, the 2018-19 Interdisciplinary Campus Read at CVCC.

(L-R) Eljae Roe, Sarah Hawkins, Penny Ly, Jesse Hoke, Zac Howard, Jackson Shoe, Cameron Owens

Moving Dreamland from the page to the stage was no small task for Stinson’s students, but they met the challenge admirably, crafting a compelling dramatization for seven actors. Rather than assigning each actor the role of one of the real-life characters who figures in the book, the actors alternated performing the lines of each passage, evoking the sound of a prose poem and imbuing each story within the larger narrative with multiple voices–an effect that underscored the broad scope of the crisis, emphasizing to the audience that Enrique isn’t the only young Mexican entrepreneur, that David Procter isn’t the only doctor overprescribing painkillers. Theirs are but two of the many stories–and there are the stories of the pharmaceutical pioneers, the narcotics investigators, and the survivors and parents as well.

The unadorned performance space of blackbox theatre provides actors an opportunity to focus on character-driven stories with minimal technical requirements, making Dreamland a model project for such a venue. The seven students who dramatized Dreamland in CVCC’s blackbox theatre brought the audience closer to the people who inhabit Quinones’ book and offered a poignant reminder of how close those stories are to home here in the Catawba Valley, where we find ourselves ranked fifth in the nation in opioid abuse.

In my mind I have traveled back to my tenth-grade English classroom, to a desk where I haven’t sat for more than thirty-five years. Yet despite that temporal distance, parts of that room remain vivid to me: the side-by-side, long, narrow window and back door typical of public high schools built in the early 1970s and the air conditioning unit below the window. It was, in fact, the first public school in our county that was air-conditioned.

The relative smallness of the room seems at odds with the vast worlds of words that opened to me there in the pages of my textbook. I do not remember its title—all of those high-school literature anthologies had the word discovery or horizon in their titles, didn’t they? Though the title escapes me, I can still feel the waxy, uneven texture of the worn cover and the pages softened from semester after semester of students turning to these poems and short stories: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, “Grass” by Carl Sandburg, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed, and “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats.

Why I recall more of those readings from my sophomore year of high school than I remember from the two years that followed, I do not know. Perhaps those poems and stories remain distinct in my mind because I was just starting to enjoy reading again. Books were my constant companions when I was a child, but in junior high I became too restless and distracted for them.

Along with those works of literature that I encountered for the first time in the pages of my sophomore anthology, I also discovered among them, to my surprise, some lines that I knew very well but didn’t expect to see in a textbook: the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” (“Ah, look at all the lonely people / Ah, look at all the lonely people.”)

When Miss Peggy Stanton played “Eleanor Rigby” for us, I thought that she, my staid, middle-aged teacher (probably younger then than I am now) was antithetical to the screaming teenage girls in the footage of Beatles concerts. Miss Stanton was a woman of quiet strength. Childhood polio had left one of her legs shorter than the other, and she wore one shoe with a very thick sole to minimize her limp. I was so fascinated by her physical imbalance, I began to imagine her as a fictional character, a spinster school teacher whose brilliant mind compensated for her impairment.

As I sat in her class and listened to the words of “Eleanor Rigby,” I thought of my own loneliness. I dwelled on its particulars then, not old enough yet to understand that it wasn’t mine alone. But I began to understand something about the universality of our particular human struggles and began to develop my capacity for empathy in those days in Miss Stanton’s class, especially on the days when we turned in our textbook to the pages of Twelve Angry Men.

Though I may have seen the Henry Fonda film before I read the play, my first memory of Twelve Angry Men is reading it aloud in Miss Stanton’s class. I don’t remember which juror I was asked to read. What I remember clearly is holding one firm belief about the nineteen-year-old boy on trial for murdering his father and gradually realizing that what I had viewed as facts were merely suppositions, and that reasonable doubt warranted a verdict of not guilty.

Unlike the other works of literature that I’d read in English class, Twelve Angry Men didn’t dazzle me with poetic language or character development. The jurors spoke plainly. They were numbers without names. But when Juror Eight led his peers to question their assumptions, he led me to question mine. When I was a high school student in the early 1980s, critical thinking wasn’t the pervasive term that it is now in conversations about education. But that’s exactly what I was doing: thinking critically. And I was developing my capacity for empathy as I witnessed Juror Nine explain why he identified with one of the witnesses, an old man whose credibility is called into question:

I think I know him better than anyone here. This is a quiet, frightened, insignificant, old man who has been nothing all his life, who has never had recognition, his name in the newspapers. Nobody knows him, nobody quotes him, nobody seeks his advice after seventy-five years. That’s a very sad thing, to be nothing. A man like this needs to be recognized, to be listened to, to be quoted just once. This is very important. It would be so hard for him to recede in the background . . . . (Rose 36)

That old man was Eleanor Rigby, and so was Juror Nine.

Now, so many years later, I find myself revisiting the play as a reader of a different sort. I am sitting with its lines before me on three-by-five index cards, part of the line-learning ritual that I adopted when I returned to acting in my forties. Back in that tenth-grade classroom, 188 miles and decades away, I see that fifteen-year-old version of myself who had just started acting a year earlier. I am a stranger to her. I, this woman she would become, who would turn away from acting—to focus on college, and teaching, and writing—and then turn back to acting, and fall in love with it all over again, decades later.

As I study my lines, I continue to reflect on first reading Twelve Angry Men and on “Eleanor Rigby,” the two inextricably yoked in my mind—not only because I read them both my sophomore year but also because of their music. In the twelve jurors of Rose’s play, I hear the violins, violas, and cellos of “Eleanor Rigby.” And to be one of Rose’s players, to carry the music of a juror’s voice from page to stage, makes my heart sing.

Works Cited

Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. “Eleanor Rigby.” Revolver. Capitol, 1966.

Rose, Reginald. Twelve Angry Jurors. 1954. Penguin, 2006.

Eight of the twenty poems selected for the upcoming Art of Poetry event at the Hickory Museum of Art were written by students of mine at Catawba Valley Community College. Congratulations to Jaycey Deal, Jason Dunford, Brianna Friday, Ethan Hoge, Morgan Jenkins, Mikaya Parsons, Abby Rodriguez-Meneses, and Samantha Stephens. Please join us at the museum next Saturday at 2 p.m. for a tour of the exhibits accompanied by readings of the poems inspired by the paintings and sculptures on display.

 

In “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual,” one of the sample student essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Hannah Berry analyzes two magazine advertisements for shoes—one for Clarks and one for Sorel—which she claims “encourage us to break free from the standard beauty mold and be ourselves” (95). While Berry’s examination of the ads often demonstrates an impressive eye for detail, at times her descriptions fall short, and what she cites as “confident individuality” (95) departs from the clichés of advertising only in superficial ways.

Fig. 1 Clarks Ad (Clarks)

The ad for Clarks (fig. 1) features a young woman in profile playing what Berry refers to as “some kind of trumpet” (95). The vagueness of her description seems inexplicable considering the ease with which anyone with internet access can now conduct a quick image search for brass instruments, or anything else, to find a name in question. In addition to forgoing a quick search for the identity of the instrument, Berry does not explore why the ad’s designers may have chosen a marching euphonium rather than a smaller B-flat trumpet or cornet for the model to hold.

Posing the model with a larger horn—one longer than her torso—makes her look diminutive, as if she is a child playing a grown-up’s trumpet. The fringed ankle socks she wears, typically worn by little girls rather than women, further accentuate her childlike quality. Though her adult French twist hairstyle and suede high-heels might counter the girlish elements in the ad, instead the incongruity creates a curious mix that evokes band nerd less than latter-day Lolita—not a “unique personality [raised] onto a pedestal” (95), as Berry observes, but rather an unsettling male fantasy à la Humbert Humbert.

Fig. 2 Sorel Ad (Sorel)

In contrast to the childlike woman atop a pedestal, the model in the Sorel ad (fig. 2) appears to have no tolerance for the romantic notions of chivalric code. If she were asked to stand on a pedestal, she might shoot it instead. Rifle in hand, she sits in a gilt chair, with one foot propped on a crystal chandelier—one that she presumably shot down from the ceiling only moments earlier. (Witness the plaster dust in the air above the wreckage.) Ostensibly, the focal point of the ad is her footwear, a devil-red, fur-trimmed variation on the classic L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoe. But in fact those boots lead the viewers’ eyes to her bare legs, untouched by the plaster dust that powders the floor directly beneath them. Conveniently, she is not sullied by the destruction but appears instead clean and carefully posed, the skirt of her dress raised and pushed aside to reveal her upper thighs. Along with her thighs, the feathers on the shoulder of her dress indicate—whether intentionally or not—that she is prey as well as predator. The centrality of her legs in the ad serves not to highlight her individuality but rather to objectify her.

The legs of the woman in the Clarks ad figure prominently as well. Though she is modestly attired, her little black dress elongates and emphasizes her model-thin legs, and its A-line skirt echoes the bell shape of the horn—as if, perhaps, she is something else to be played.

Along with the impressive eye for detail that Berry’s analysis demonstrates, her essay is admirable for its structure; it gracefully moves from introduction, to thesis, to description and analysis of each ad. Those aspects alone warrant her essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. But it’s a valuable model for another reason as well. As Berry writes that the “purity” signified by the model’s white dress is “completely contradicted by the way she wears it” (97), she reveals the contradiction inherent in her own assessment. Rather than depicting the woman as an individual, the ad objectifies her in typical Madison Avenue fashion. And that discrepancy in Berry’s analysis offers students a possible starting point for their own textual analyses.

Works Cited

Berry, Hannah. “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 94-99.

Clarks. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 55.

Sorel. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 65.

Wordplay Day

Posted: September 24, 2018 in Teaching

Scrabble Retro Edition

Later this morning, the students in my 8 o’clock class will tear the plastic from these retro-edition Scrabble sets and begin Wordplay Day, a new feature in my classes this semester. Once every two weeks, the students will play Scrabble in teams of two to foster collaboration, along with boosting their word power and creative problem-solving skills. Let the games (and the learning) begin!

As a young child, I was mystified by my parents’ interest in estate auctions. Though the auctioneer’s chant intrigued me, I could no more understand his rapid-fire bid-calling than I could my parents’–and all of the other adults’–inclination to stand stock-still in the blazing sun, raising their hands only occasionally to signal a bid.

Once when I had endured standing for as long as I could, I wandered away from my parents and climbed atop one of the tables. For me, it simply offered a respite from standing; I didn’t think of it as a sale table. But when my mother appeared before me a few minutes later, she said, “The auctioneer’s going to sell everything on this table. If you don’t climb down, he will sell you, too.”

As I remember those words of my mother’s now, I can almost feel the splinters burrowing in my palm as I pushed myself away from the point of purchase. Though I had contemplated life with other parents, the ones that I had were tolerable, and I had no desire to be sold to the highest bidder.

I never became an auction-goer, but I share my parents’ fascination with objects from the past. And I can trace the allure of artifacts back to those outings with them. Rather than standing and listening to an auction chant, I prefer the quiet pastime of browsing the shelves of antique shops and thrift stores. What appeals to me about such excursions is the possibility of the unexpected find: most recently a set of wooden letter blocks at Picket Fence Antiques, and earlier a chair from The Crow’s Nest and a student desk from Diversity Thrift (all of which are pictured here).

For me, the serendipity that comes with thrifting and antiquing is akin to the discoveries of the writing process. Though the journey doesn’t always lead to unexpected treasures, when I persist–whether as a browser or a writer–I eventually find something of value that I did not seek.

 

Collage head shot by Richard McGee

Perhaps it was my questioning faith in the salvation of technology that led me to disconnect from Facebook when Easter converged with April Fool’s Day. Deactivating my account wasn’t a response to the recent revelations about data breeches but rather another step in my ongoing efforts to limit my screen time.

Along with reducing the number of personal hours that I’ve spent on my phone and laptop, I devoted the school year to a revised curriculum that aimed to strike a balance between on-screen and off-screen endeavors. My students maintained blogs but also composed snail mail once per month. They drafted each essay by hand in class and revised each handwritten draft in class on their laptops.

Trying to convince students of the value of beginning their work on paper was difficult but not nearly as challenging as separating them from their phones. Once those digital devices were tucked away in backpacks, some of their owners powered off as well, like androids themselves, disconnected from their vital components. How could anything as primitive as pens, journals, and physical textbooks (no e-books permitted) animate students in the digital age? Despite the hard sell of low-tech class days, I persevered, bearing in mind these research findings:

  • Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.
  • In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second-, third-, and fourth-graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.
  • Natalie Phillips, an English professor at Michigan State, and her neuroscience-collaborators at Stanford conducted brain scan research revealing evidence that close critical reading of literary novels activates regions of the brain unaffected by casual reading (Phillips ctd. in Vedantam, par. 13).

Simply put, putting pen to paper, studying literary texts that place demands on us as readers, and turning away from the screen contributes to our intellectual development, and studying literature and reading away from the screen benefits our emotional well-being, too.

In early May, near the semester’s close—and one month into my two-month break from social media—I began reading my students final reflective essays, which included these observations:

[T]his journey was a real wake-up call for me. It made me realize how much I do not pay attention in class and how much I depend on my devices. This class has taught me there are times to use your devices and times not to. I also found some good apps to keep me on task while using my laptop. One app called Self-Control lets you block certain websites for a set amount time so you can get your work done.

English 131 has helped me understand more why we are supposed to read books and even given me a passion to want to pick up a book on my own . . . English 131 helped me better understand the books that we read, whenever we would go over certain parts of the book together as a class. Discussing what was going on in the chapters we were supposed to read didn’t just help me understand the book, but it made me more interested in it since I knew what was going on

Now as I write, and the semester draws to an end, I have seen my writing improve because I am more aware of what I am actually writing, or at least it feels like I care more about it because I have realized that my iPhone, PlayStation, laptop, and TV are not as important as I made them out to be at the beginning of the semester. Taking time away from the screen has been an enlightening experience where I have learned a lot about myself and about learning. I have learned that the relationships you build, the connections you make are what really will make me successful . . .

As for me, now at the end of my second month away from social media, I feel reinvigorated. I’ve read more, I’ve written more, I’ve generated more ideas, and I feel more creative and less anxious. Though I’ll reactivate my Facebook account, I know that I’ll use that platform less—and in general spend fewer hours of the day experiencing the world mediated by screens. I haven’t lost my faith in digital technology, but I see it now more as a trinity with pen and paper, those other ways that words are made flesh.


Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2013, pp. 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Accessed 11 Nov. 2013.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Vedantam, Shankar. “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen.” NPR: Morning Edition, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/10/09/162401053/a-lively-mind-your-brain-on-jane-austen, 9 Oct. 2012, Accessed 31 May 2018.

A few weeks ago I received an email from a student I didn’t know asking me how to submit his work to Cantos. He had conducted some research that led him to believe that I was “in charge” of LR’s student-run literary magazine. In my reply, I wrote that I was not the faculty advisor, but that I encouraged my students to submit their work and hoped that he would do so as well when the magazine begins its next reading period. (I also forwarded his email to my two colleagues who serve as the magazine’s faculty advisors.)

Cantos cover photographs by Brianna Miller (2017) and Daniel Kiser (2018)

The student’s inquiry left me wondering what research led him to believe that I was “in charge” of the magazine. Googling “Cantos Lenoir-Rhyne” confirmed my hunch: the third site in the list of results was my blog.

I am grateful that the posts that I’ve written about Cantos led the student to email me, which enabled me to put him in contact with the magazine’s advisors. And if you are another LR student who has found my blog through an online search for Cantos, I encourage you to submit your work as well. Since the magazine does not have an online presence–at least not yet–the announcements for its next reading period will be posted on campus bulletin boards. Once the reading period begins, you will be able to submit your prose, poetry, artwork, and photography to cantos@my.lr.edu.

Good luck to all of you who submit your work for consideration, and congratulations to all of my students whose work appears in the pages of Cantos 2018 and 2017:

Cantos 2018

  • Artwork by Diana Nava (ENG 131.05, Spring 2017) 4, 13, 17, 28
  • “The Gift October Gave,” 9, and “To the Boy,” 19, poems by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231.01, Fall 2014 and ENG 281.02, Spring 2015)
  • Untitled haiku, 33, by Marcus Chapman (ENG 131.03, Spring 2018)

Cantos 2017

  • “Bitter Sweet Love,” 10, poem by Laura Barrier (ENG 131.05, Spring 2017)
  • Artwork by Bridget Strother (ENG 131.09, Fall 2015) 11
  • “Fascism,” 15, “Police,” 34, “Climate Change,” 49, and “Assault,” 51, artwork by by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231.01, Fall 2014 and ENG 281.02, Spring 2015)
  • “Another One Down,” 17, “Bones,” 45, and “Falling,” 48, poems by Ghia Smith (ENG 131.02, Fall 2013)
  • “Inheritance of Wrath,” 23, “Living Water,” 25, and “Sea Fever,” 40, poems by by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231.01, Fall 2014 and ENG 281.02, Spring 2015)
  • “Lonely,” 41, a poem by Demetrich Curry (ENG 131.01, Fall 2016)
  • “Scarred,” 47, a poem by Haylee Carpenter (ENG 131.02, Spring 2016)