I wrote my first research paper in seventh grade. All of us in Mr. Lord’s English class were required to select a subject of our choice, perhaps the subject had to be a historical figure. Whatever the case, I chose Albert Einstein. I remember sitting at the small, drop-front desk in my bedroom, printing sentence after sentence on three-by-five index cards. Mr. Lord had told us in class that we should limit each card to one fact. One of my most vivid memories of that project is the sight of my large, uneven letters spilling over onto the back of the cards. What I construed as one fact wouldn’t fit on one side.

I was probably as unclear about what constituted a single fact as I was about the goal of the assignment itself. I knew that I was conducting research on a scientific genius, but what was my writing supposed to do?

In the process of writing too many words on my index cards, I came across this detail that stopped me in my tracks: When Einstein was a young child, he was perceived as slow-witted. It seemed preposterous that anyone could believe that the theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity was stupid; however, I was also aware of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. I didn’t think that I was the same person that others saw when they looked at me. I imagined, as perhaps all adolescents do, that I would never be truly understood, just as I would never truly understand what I was supposed to write about Albert Einstein.

A little more than ten years later, I was walking across the main quad at Hollins College when Professor Dillard stopped me and told me that my paper on The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the best analyses he’d ever read by a student. Stunned and pleased, I thanked him, thinking of how the process of writing that essay had felt different to me, as if something that I needed to achieve in a piece of academic writing had slowly come into focus. I was a graduate student in creative writing then, so most of my writing for my courses was fiction. Yet the years of studying literature and criticism as an undergraduate had led me to an understanding that somehow only surfaced when I wrote that essay for Professor Dillard.

My next breakthrough came about four years later, when the process of writing became more than the act of fulfilling an assignment for a Ph.D. seminar. I was reading studies of contemporary Southern writing and sensed that something was missing. That something was my own analysis:

In The Southern Writer and the Postmodern World, Fred Hobson tags Bobbie Ann Mason “not so much a New South as a No South writer” (81), limiting his discussion of Mason’s work to In Country’s Samantha Hughes. . . . What Hobson refers to in Mason’s characters as a “relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (6), though, is not evident in her other work. (Meekins 147)

As I wrote, I was witnessing for the first time how I could develop scholarship of my own by placing myself in conversation with other scholars, such as Fred Hobson.

Now as I revisit research writing with my students, I am reminded of why the study of imaginative literature, Southern or not, continues to appeal to me twenty-five years after I wrote that paper. As I read in our textbook that the purpose of humanities is “to explore and analyze aspects of the human experience” (Bullock et al. 307), I think of how the ways that writers continue to retell our stories is a source of never-ending fascination for me. I hope that in the process of reflecting on their own research, my students find their own sources of never-ending fascination, too—or at least begin to see their research as more than a course requirement. When they encounter unfamiliar words, I hope they’ll keep reading, as Tara Westover did. In her memoir, Educated, she writes of learning to study by mimicking her brother Tyler. In her words, “[t]he skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand” (62). In retrospect, I realize that’s what I was doing forty years ago when I sat at my drop-front desk writing too many words on my note cards. Only now I understand.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 24: “Reading Across Fields of Study.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed. Norton, 2019. pp. 291-93.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Meekins, Beth. “Lost in the Laughing Place: Notes on the Postmodern Postsouthern Condition.” The Black Warrior Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994. pp. 146-59.*

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

*The essay “Lost in the Laughing Place” was published five years before I married and three years before I began using my first name rather my nickname, hence the byline Beth Meekins rather than Jane Lucas.

A Lust for Lists

Posted: August 23, 2019 in Reading, Teaching, Writing

This semester I created a new introductory assignment for my students in English 112: Writing and Research in the Disciplines. The idea came to me while I was thinking about the work involved in producing a bibliography. That gathering and compiling of sources, an essential part of the research process, is a tedious undertaking for many students. Yet list-making, itself, is something that many of us turn to in discussions of our favorite things. Think Maria von Trapp and Oprah. The list could go on.

It occurred to me that such lists could serve as introductions, getting-to-know-you opportunities that would also offer practice in compiling MLA-style bibliographies, discographies, filmographies, and TVographies.

Creating lists of their favorite things—whether books, music, films, or TV series—may make the process of producing citations less dull. I hope it does. Even if it doesn’t, the lists will offer us starting points for conversations about some unfamiliar things that may someday join our own lists of favorites.

For my top-five list, I chose my favorite Common Reads—or as some schools call them, Campus Reads or Interdisciplinary Reads. I have these books on my brain because I’m currently teaching Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, this year’s Interdisciplinary Read at Catawba Valley Community College. As I meditate on Tara Westover’s book, my thoughts turn to how her memoir differs from other Common Reads that I’ve studied with my students.

Exploring a single book, such as Westover’s, over the course of a semester bears witness to the volumes we can learn about writing through the slow, careful study of well-wrought prose. When the pages are only slightly more familiar to me than they are to my students—which has been the case with every Common Read that I’ve taught—the experience has enabled me to model the pursuit of lifelong learning that I aim to foster in my students.

Bibliography

Quinones, Sam. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic. 2015. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown, 2010.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. 1991. Pantheon, 1992.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

Whitehead, Colson. Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

When I saw Corey Mitchell’s picture posted on Facebook, I was reminded of how familiar he seemed to me. That was back in July, not long after the Hickory Community Theatre announced that he would direct the musical Hair. The show would open in September, which was still a spot in the distance back in mid-July. I was unpacking stacks of boxes, ones that had sat untouched in my house since 2013. After our lives were upended in 2012–when my husband was laid off–we relocated from Richmond, Virginia, to a house in Lenoir–a Dutch Colonial Revival that for all its beauty lacked the storage space provided by a two-car garage and a partially finished basement. The contents of my husband’s cubicle in Richmond had already found a home: the office of the newspaper editor (the job that had brought us to Lenoir). The shelves of books and drawers of files that had filled my own office towered precariously like a cardboard city in what was supposed to be the guest bedroom. Instead it was one of those rooms that you hope guests will never see.

 

Then after five years as an adjunct, I was offered a full-time teaching job. I had my own office again but not the time to move into it. So after the school year ended in May, I began to unpack the artifacts of my buried life and transport them to campus. As I opened box after box, fragments of those earlier years of teaching reentered my consciousness, including the image of a young man who appeared in my mind as a decades-younger version of Corey Mitchell, a young man I’d taught at UNC-Wilmington. Hadn’t I read that Corey had graduated from UNCW?–and didn’t I teach a Mitchell there?

Not long after that–a couple of days later, perhaps–I opened a box that contained all of my old grade books, all the way back to the first semester I taught, as a grad student, back in 1990. The gradebook that I used two years later at UNCW was the oldest in the stack, one passed down to me by my parents, an unused one pulled from one of their own file cabinets after they retired. The column for student names in that vintage Hall’s Class Record Book was so narrow that only the last names fit. I found what I was looking for between Lofton and Onuffer: Mitchell. I was relatively certain that it was Corey.

As the director of Hair at HCT, Corey was working closely with the theatre’s Artistic Director, Pam Livingstone, whom I knew from my own stage work there, so I sent her this email:

Corey Mitchell has looked familiar to me since I saw his face on the Tonys and in the news back in 2015, now I may know why. I read recently that he’s a graduate of UNC-Wilmington. I taught there for the 1991-92 school year before moving to Tallahassee to begin my PhD work.

The last class that I taught at UNCW was a four-week summer survey of American literature. When you teach a class of thirty-seven students for only a month, you don’t remember much about  them 25-plus years later. But I do remember a highly intelligent, charismatic, deep-voiced young man who was clearly going places, Today I found my gradebook from that year. I didn’t record the students’ first names, but ‘Mitchell’ is there, and I think it’s Corey.

Would you please ask him when he attended UNCW? If he was my student, I would like to speak with him briefly before one of the rehearsals.

Pam answered, yes, it was Corey, and he came into sharper focus. I could see him sitting in my office. He was wearing a hat. He often wore a hat. I began to remember part of a conversation we’d had. I emailed him to recount how he’d spoken with me about his admiration for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Today, a month after I found his name in that old gradebook, I went to HCT’s rehearsal hall to surprise him with a brief pre-rehearsal visit. I chose today because it was my first day of teaching for the fall semester. Today I met thirty-seven of the one-hundred-plus students who will teach me this semester–as Corey taught me–as much, if not more, than I will teach them.

After I introduced myself to Corey, he invited me to sit down. He remembered reading an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club in my American literature survey course. He had enjoyed that chapter of Tan’s novel so much that he bought a copy of the book. Was her novel the subject of that outstanding oral presentation that he delivered? As he spoke with me, he demonstrated the attentiveness that the best teachers possess. That attentiveness is one of the many qualities that led Corey to win the first Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education back in 2015.

His devotion to his students at Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts is chronicled in the 2015 documentary Purple Dreams, which traces his students’ lives–both on and off stage–as they rehearse and perform the musical The Color Purple, an enormously ambitious project for which their school raised over $170,000  “to take 107 people–cast, crew and orchestra–and rent the original Broadway set and costumes to perform at the International Thespian Festival two years ago [in 2013] in Nebraska” (Toppman par. 9).

In my email to Corey, I wrote: “As a teacher, I am always grateful to witness my students’ achievements in the classroom and beyond. Congratulations for all that you have accomplished, and thank you for all that you have given back.” I tried to say that again tonight as I left the rehearsal hall, but what came out was simply “I’m so proud of you!”

As I drove home, my thoughts turned to one of Stephen Sondheim’s anecdotes about his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein:

Just before he [Hammerstein] died, he gave me a picture of himself, and I asked him to inscribe it, which is sort of odd because he was a surrogate father to me. It’s like asking your father to inscribe a picture. He thought for a minute and was clearly a little embarrassed. Then he got a smile on his face like the cat had just eaten the cream. And he wrote something. And when he left the room, I read it. And it said, ‘For Stevie, my friend and teacher.’

Corey, this former teacher of yours, just three years your senior, isn’t your mentor or your surrogate mother. But these reflections are a portrait inscribed to you, “To my teacher.”


Lucas, Jane. “Corey Mitchell.” Received by Pamela Livingstone. 15 July 2019.

—. “Greetings from a Proud Teacher.” Received by Corey Mitchell. 17 July 2019.

Sondheim, Stephen. “To Me, Teaching is a Sacred Profession.” Sondheim on Sondheim. P.S. Classics, 2010.

Toppman,  Lawrence. “Charlotte Teacher Wins Tony Award.” Charlotteobserver.com, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/article23101743.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2015.

Ordinarily I don’t blog about a book until I’ve finished it, but John Warner’s spot-on observations on the crafts of writing and acting prompted me to pause in my reading and share this passage:

Imagine an acting school where rather than helping students develop the individual skills of building a performance, students are required to learn a series of impressions of genuine actors performing a role. Deniro 101 would cover Travis Bickle and the father in Meet the Parents, for example. Meryl Streep’s various performances would be 400-level, no doubt. Our aspiring actors would be graded on 45-second snippet imitations, judged on how accurate they are to the standard set in the original performance.

But what happens when our young thespians are tasked with a role they haven’t learned to mimic, a performance that doesn’t yet exist?

This is how we teach students to write. Don’t be a writer, we tell them, just do some things that make it look like you know how to write. And when in doubt, at least sound smart by using words like ubiquitous and plethora. If you really want to show off, try myriad.

And when students wind up in college in classes like mine and I tell them the game had changed, that in fact it isn’t a game at all, students feel like someone has played a cruel trick. Each successive cohort seems less prepared for the challenges of my college-writing class than the last, not because they’re getting less intelligent, or don’t want to learn, or have been warped by the ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ culture, but because they have been incentivized to create imitations rather than the genuine article. (6-7)

As a writer and actor, I often reflect on the similarities between creating for the stage and the page, but it never before occurred to me to convey to my students what now seems vital to their instruction: how self-conscious artifice makes both writing and acting fall flat.

In the first chapter of Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has given me a new insight to share with my students. And no doubt he’ll give me more before I finish reading.

Work Cited

Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Johns Hopkins U., 2018. pp. 6-7.

John Warner teaches writing at the College of Charleston, and his blog “Just Visiting” is featured twice weekly in Inside Higher Education.  From 2003-2008 he edited McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

J.M.W. Turner's "The Slave Ship" (1840) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship” (1840) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At first glance, the painting The Slave Ship seems primarily a showcase for the artist J.M.W. Turner’s use of light and color. But the painting’s title, its subtitle, and closer inspection of its details reveal that Ruskin’s painting speaks to the  consequences of slavery and oppression, as well as the ways in which we depict such injustices. Readers who encounter The Slave Ship in conjunction with other Victorian-age literature may be reminded not only of the words of John Ruskin–once owner of the painting, who described its “awful but glorious light” (385)–but also of the realization by Frankenstein’s monster that without money or social status, he was considered a “vagabond and a slave” (Shelley 107).

In addition to expressing the sentiments of nineteenth-century slaves and abolitionists, Shelley’s words echo those of her mother, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. When the monster recounts Saphie’s education, he observes how “[t]he young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom spurned the bondage of which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughters in the tenets of her religion [Christianity], and taught her to aspire to higher levels of intellect, and an independent spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet” (110).

Works Cited

Ruskin, John. Excerpt from “The Slave Ship.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. C1.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Turner, J.M.W., Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying–Typhoon Coming On). The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Age. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. 385.

In “Proficiency,” one of the essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Shannon Nichols chronicles her experience of failing the writing portion of the proficiency test that all Ohio high-school students must pass in order to receive their diplomas. Nichols’ literacy narrative offers a valuable example to students, demonstrating how even skillful writers fail. Her essay also speaks to different notions of what constitutes “good” writing, though perhaps in ways that neither Nichols nor the textbook writers intended.

Notably, the last sentence of Nichols’ introductory paragraph isn’t a sentence; it’s a fragment. While fragments can be used to great effect, the presence of one in Nichols’ introduction prompts readers to question whether Nichols was consciously taking a liberty or was instead unaware that her paragraph ended with an incomplete grammatical construction. If she was purposely defying convention, did it not occur to her that taking such a liberty on a standardized test could be the reason for her failure?

In addition to the sentence fragment in her introduction, Nichols presents a fragment of conversation that raises questions in readers’ minds. After she recounts failing the writing portion of the test for the second time, she recalls turning to her English teacher for an answer. She asks Mrs. Brown: “How can I get A’s in all my English classes but fail the writing part of the proficiency test twice?” (82). The next sentence that Nichols writes is simply this: “She couldn’t answer my question” (82). What does Nichols mean by that? It seems unlikely that Mrs. Brown literally had no answer for her. In the absence of Mrs. Brown’s answer, readers are left to wonder not only what the teacher said but also whether she missed a critical opportunity to talk with Nichols about purpose and audience.

Whether the scorers of the Ohio Proficiency Test are anonymous humans racing to meet a quota or robo-graders with an algorithm that identifies surface-level proficiency (including the absence of fragments), their aim differs radically from that of many writing teachers–perhaps Mrs. Brown among them–who strive to nurture their students’ ability to express themselves in meaningful ways.

Such teachers are philosophically opposed to “teaching to the test” for good reasons. But teaching the difference between what the test requires and the skills and habits of mind that truly make students college- and career-ready offers a lesson in compromise along with a study in contrasting rhetorical situations.

The textbook writers, themselves, note those contrasting rhetorical situations in the handbook section of The Norton Field Guide. In the chapter devoted to fragments, they write:

Fig. 1 HB-7 / W.W. Norton

“[S]ome readers consider fragments too informal, and in many academic writing situations, it’s better to avoid them altogether” (Fig. 1 HB-7). Later in the same chapter, however, the textbook writers note that “[w]riters sometimes use [them] intentionally” (Fig. 2 HB-9). The first example they offer of an intentional fragment is the one in Nichols’ introduction, which the textbook writers label as intentional for emphasis:

Fig. 2 HB-9 / W.W. Norton

Throughout my elementary and middle-school years, I was a strong student, always on the honor roll. I never had a GPA below 3.0. I was smart, and I knew it. That is, until I got the results of the proficiency test. (Fig. 2 HB-9)

The example of Nichols’ fragment as an intentional one appears in the textbook more than nine-hundred pages after her essay, itself, which increases the chances that students and instructors will not encounter both the fragment in context and the explanation for its use. If the textbook writers had opted not to include Nichols’ essay in Chapter 10 (“Writing a Literacy Narrative”) and instead placed it in Chapter 59 (“Literacy Narratives”), they could have addressed the fragment in one of the questions that follow each piece of writing in that section of the textbook. Seeing Nichols’ essay juxtaposed with the explanation for its fragment would invite classroom conversations about rhetorical situations, dialogues more nuanced than the fragments Nichols offers on the page.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. “Sentence Fragments.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, pp. HB-7 and HB-9-10.

Nichols, Shannon. “‘Proficiency.’” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 82-83.

 

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, ca. 1783-91 / W. W. Norton

My previous blog post features the sample assignment that I wrote for my British literature students. This post presents a second sample that I wrote along with them.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli depicts a blonde lying in her bed chamber with a demon crouched on her chest, eyeing her with a wicked grin. In the background, a wide-eyed, white horse gazes at the pair, his head parting the curtains that separate the irrational world of the nightmare from reality and reason. Though the painting’s title indicates that the slumbering woman is having a nightmare, her arched back and raised knees create an image that’s more erotic than horrific. The demon crouched on her chest heightens the eroticism of the painting, as the impish figure appears in the form of the iconic incubus of mythology and folklore, a demon who descends upon people in slumber, often to engage in sexual intercourse.

A painting of the Romantic era, The Nightmare evokes literature of the period as well works of earlier centuries that the Romantics turned back to for inspiration. With paint, Fuseli expresses the same themes that Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge convey with words: Victor Frankenstein’s Angel of Destruction (Ch. 3) and the Ancient Mariner’s vision of death and his mate (line 189). Pre-Romantic-era works that The Nightmare echoes include John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost–the source of Frankenstein‘s epigraph–“The Daemon-lover,” from the oral tradition of Celtic balladry, and the New Testament Book of Revelation.

 Work Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 448-64.

Fuseli, Henry. The Nightmare. The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. p. C5.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.