Posts Tagged ‘Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series’

The large banner that hangs beside the entrance to P. E. Monroe auditorium suggests that The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace figures prominently on campus as this year’s common reading selection at Lenoir-Rhyne. But unlike the books that many other colleges and universities choose for their incoming freshman class, Jeff Hobbs’ biography of his Yale roommate wasn’t theSTLRP Banner subject of orientation-week discussion groups and isn’t required reading for all sections of FYE (First-Year Experience) or English 131 (Critical Thinking and Writing). Even so, I included a study of it in my English 131 classes to give Hobbs’ book its due as the campus common reading. For my students and me, the biography served not only as a subject of textual analysis but also as a starting point for a conversation about the common reading programs that so many colleges have adopted in recent years.

Last semester and again this semester, I wrote an essay on the book along with my students. Unlike the one that I posted to my blog last semester, the one that follows isn’t a revised and expanded version of what I wrote longhand while my students wrote. Instead, it’s simply a typed version of what I wrote when I put pen to paper in class on March 9.

The Unstoppable Drive of Robert Peace

In Part Four of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs recounts the hours Rob spent mentoring Truman Fox, one of the water polo players he coached at St. Benedict’s when he returned to his alma mater to teach biology. After observing Truman’s laziness, evidenced in the way he “tiptoed along the bottom during laps” (267), Rob says to Truman: “You’re not making it hard” (268). Those words of Rob’s inspire Truman to take more initiative, and the following Saturday when Rob heads to the weight room to open it for a voluntary training session, he finds Truman in the hall waiting for him. Hobbs writes of Truman that “[h]e felt that if Rob saw a spark in him, even if Truman himself did not, then it was his responsibility to stoke it” (268).

Rob’s time with Truman echoes his tutoring of his high school friend Tavarus Hester. And later after Rob leaves his teaching position at St. Benedict’s, he reprises that tutoring role, helping Dawn—the daughter of his airline co-worker Lisa Wingo—“guid[ing] her through fifth-grade reading lists and simple division” (314). With Tavarus, Truman, and Dawn, Rob models the same self-discipline, but the passage that chronicles his conversations with Truman differs from the others, revealing the dark side of Rob’s determination, a side that remains unseen to Truman: “[W]hile he and his teammates were changing back into dry clothes, his coach was mentally preparing to spend the night dealing drugs” (268).

The stress of Rob’s post-Yale days, Newark-proofing himself and negotiating and compartmentalizing his identities, explains how the same Rob Peace who aced his molecular biophysics and biochemistry courses at Yale failed the Realtor’s exam, not once but twice. If he had pored over his notes for that exam with the same focus that he gave to perfecting Sour Diesel, his hybrid strain of marijuana, he probably would have passed the Realtor’s exam on his first try. The fact that he didn’t underscores what his friends saw with clarity but Rob himself could not.

What ultimately stopped Robert Peace wasn’t a weakness plain and simple but a more complicated trait, one that could be a strength—and usually was—but that became a weakness when he found himself “focusing that unstoppable drive on the very thing that could stop him” (311).

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

Chuck Klosterman / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Chuck Klosterman / visitingwriters.lr.edu

To introduce my students to the writing of pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman—last night’s featured writer in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—I assigned “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” Of the dozens of columns and essays of Klosterman’s I could have assigned, I chose his commentary on zombies in part because of the continuing popularity of zombies in general, and in particular the comic-book-turned-TV series The Walking Dead, now joined on AMC by its prequel, Fear the Walking Dead. I also chose “My Zombie, Myself” because it’s a well-constructed argument, one that makes the same moves that we make in academic writing.

In class on Wednesday, my students collaboratively examined “My Zombie, Myself,” identified its components, and summarized the essay’s argument with their answers to these questions:

  1. What is the standard view of zombies?
  2. What is Klosterman’s claim about them?
  3. What is Klosterman’s support for his claim?
  4. What naysayers or counterargument does Klosterman address?
  5. What does Klosterman write to convey why it matters? (Who cares why zombies are the monster of the moment?)

As the students in my 8 a.m. class collaboratively composed their summaries, I drafted this one of my own:

In ‘My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead,’ Chuck Klosterman challenges the standard view that the monster of the moment personifies our unconscious fears, claiming instead that battling the undead provides us with an allegory for our daily lives. In Klosterman’s words, ‘[t]he principal downside to any zombie  attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is that you do.’ To those who contend that zombies have merely replaced vampires as the current it-monster, Klosterman says their argument is deceptive.  He maintains that the Twilight series isn’t about vampires but about ‘nostalgia for teenage chastity, the attractiveness of its film cast and the fact that contemporary fiction consumers tend to prefer long serialized novels that can be read rapidly.’ Klosterman reminds us that our zombie fixation matters because they “come at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly),” like all of the annoyances of life, but we can manage them.

Last night I was reminded of Klosterman’s claim about the popularity of zombies—how they’re an allegory for our daily lives—when interviewer Mike Collins, host of WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, asked him about the continuing popularity of the reality show Survivor. In response to Collins’ question—why is it still so popular after so many years?—Klosterman said that what you see over and over in Survivor is the elimination of the oldest and the weakest first, then you see the elimination of the strongest, the contestants who are perceived as the biggest threats. What Survivor really rewards is mediocrity, Klosterman said, and that’s something that we see in our own lives.

Near the end of the interview—which covered topics ranging from Klosterman’s childhood in North Dakota, to his work at ESPN and Spin, to his interviews with Taylor Swift and Tom Brady, to the presidential candidates—Klosterman spoke about his writing process. I think that most writers come up with a thesis and then write about it, he said. What I do is write about what interests me and then look for a thesis.

Klosterman’s method is far more common than he realizes. It’s the one I use, and the one I encourage my students to use when their assignments give them the opportunity to see their interests “through academic eyes” (Laff qtd. in Graff 250).

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 244-51. Print.

Klosterman, Chuck. “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Yesterday afternoon, Jeff Hobbs—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers SeriesSTLRP Bannerconducted a Q&A session with an audience primarily of students, mostly freshman who are reading his book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace for their FYE (First-Year Experience) classes. As Hobbs began to speak, I was reminded of the phone conversation that he recounts in Chapter 12: “You sound like a mouse,” Rob says, “same as you did in college” (295). Though I thought his voice was too low-pitched to be mouse-like, I could see how Rob had found it mousy—and admittedly it was, as Hobbs describes in Chapter 12, “soft-spoken” and “halting” (295).

Yet despite the “soft-spoken” and “halting” quality of Hobbs’ voice, he delivered powerful responses to students’ questions. When someone asked, what made you want to write the book? Hobbs answered with remarks about the vast array of mourners—evidence of the variety of people whose lives had been touched by Rob—echoing Hobbs’ words in Chapter 17:

The line for the viewing was two blocks long and one of the most diverse collections of people I’d ever seen: Yale students and professors, people conversing in Portuguese, Croatian, and Spanish, young and old residents of all of the boroughs of New York City and all the townships surrounding Newark. (388)

Near the end of Hobbs’ Q&A, my thoughts returned to Chapter 12, when in response to a question regarding how the process of writing the book had affected him, Hobbs answered that it made him “lament the nature of male friendship,” which he illustrates in his reflections on his conversation with Rob:

Jeff Hobbs / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Jeff Hobbs / visitingwriters.lr.edu

The distance between us and the maleness of our friendship precluded revealing anything that truly mattered, and at the time I was too naïve to know that if you were friends with someone—truly friends—then you told him what was going on (“It’s called ‘catching up,’” my wife informed me when I asked how it was possible for her to yap with her girlfriends for as long as she did and share every innocuous detail of her life). Instead, I thought that by concisely presenting the most easygoing and put-together version of myself, I was being ‘all good.’ (295-96)

Hobbs did not address his writing process—something he may have spoken about at one of his other two appearances at L-R, Thursday evening and Friday morning—but he did convey what he hoped his biography of Rob would give to readers: a narrative that challenges the “predictable media spin of potential squandered” (386). The questions that audience members asked—as if they, too, had been acquainted with Rob—indicated that Hobbs did achieve that goal, one that any of us writing a book-length narrative would hope for: breathing life into our subjects, whether fictional or real, and enabling readers to see them as three-dimensional human beings, with all of their consistent inconsistencies.

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.

Last Thursday, when Jaki Shelton Green appeared at Lenoir-Rhyne as the first featured author in this year’s Visiting Writers Series, she spoke as both a poet and a storyteller, noting that her poems live inside her stories.

Jaki Shelton Green / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Jaki Shelton Green / visitingwriters.lr.edu

I found myself drawn more to her stories than the poems they linked, but my ears welcomed the sound of Green’s own voice reading her poem “i know the grandmother one had hands,” just a day after my students and I studied the poem and read it aloud ourselves in class. As she introduced the poem, Green recounted her stint teaching poetry writing to women on death row, giving them the assignment of writing about hands because of the acts that they had committed with their own hands. She didn’t say that the poem was her answer to the assignment, but it may have been, just as this blog entry and the earlier one on the poem, itself, are my answers to the blog assignment that I have given to my students.

Through her poems and stories, Green spoke of painful subjects on the eve of 9/11: the imminent anniversary, her great-great grandmother’s life in slavery, and the death of her own daughter. But her words offered hope rather than sadness. As I reflect on those words, I hope that the ones that my students and I write this semester will show us what Green’s showed us Thursday night: that writing gives us a way of making sense of the world.

Jaki Shelton Green’s poem “i know the grandmother one had hands” evokes images of a woman whose busy hands remain unseen as they perform a litany of tasks, some literal: “folding, pinching, rolling the dough” (3), others metaphorical: “growing knives” (14).

As my students and I read Green’s poem in class yesterday–in preparation for her presentation tonight as one of the featured writers in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series–I expected that the conversation that followed might be markedly poemdifferent from the ones last semester in my Introduction to Creative Writing class. Those students, after all, were reading poems, short stories, plays, and narrative nonfiction as models for their own work. Yet even though my current students in Critical Thinking and Writing will not produce creative writing for class, their responses to Green’s work were similar to those of my creative writing students.

In retrospect, I realize that the similarities should not surprise me since I asked the students in ENG 131 (Critical Thinking and Writing) to begin their exploration of Green’s poem by considering her choices, just as I asked the students in ENG 281 (Intro. to Creative Writing) to begin.

I do not know why Green uses a lower-case “i,” or why she refers to “the grandmother one,” rather than a grandmother or my grandmother, but posing such questions and considering the effects of those choices places us on the path of writing, whether the destination is a poem of one’s own or a study of someone else’s.

Pastrix (2013) / nadiabolzweber.com

Pastrix (2013) / nadiabolzweber.com

Before Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke yesterday at Lenoir-Rhyne, the students in my 8 a.m. class and I read an excerpt from her memoir Pastrix: The Cranky and Beautiful Life of a Sinner and Saint (2013). The excerpt, “La Femme Nadia,” depicts the events in late 1991 and early 1992 that led Bolz-Weber to sobriety and to God. For my students and me reading in a “writerly” way, “La Femme Nadia” served as an instructive model for its apt sensory detail (“My skin felt like the rough side of Velcro”), and its graceful shifts from summary to scene:

Margery, a leathery-faced woman with a New Jersey accent, was talking about prayer or some other nonsense when suddenly a sound like a pan falling on the tile floor came up from the kitchen below us. I jerked out of my seat like I was avoiding shrapnel, but no one else reacted. Without skipping half a beat, Margery turned to me, with a long slim cigarette in her hand and said, ‘Honey, that’ll pass.’ She took a drag and went on, ‘So anyways, prayer is. . .’

I did not revisit those details from “La Femme Nadia” with my 12:15 students because their class period coincided with the first of Bolz-Weber’s two March 5 appearances as one of the featured writers in the university’s Visiting Writers Series.

In lieu of our scheduled class, we attended the presentation—one that Bolz-Weber nearly missed due to weather-related travel woes that she recounted with humor and grace.

Her remarks focused on faith rather than writing—she would turn her focus to writing at 7 p.m.–but her 12:15 talk was relevant to writers nevertheless. In response to a question about the Eucharist, she paraphrased Flannery O’Connor and spoke eloquently in her own words: “You have to be deeply rooted in tradition to innovate with integrity.” The same is true of writing and of all other art.

. . . and the poet who wasn’t here.

New Weather (1973) / timkcbooks.com

Paul Muldoon was supposed to read at Lenoir-Rhyne last Thursday, as one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series, but the snow kept him away. Day classes were cancelled at the university, too, so my students and I didn’t read his poem “Hedgehog” together as planned. But yesterday, as the rain washed away the lingering snow, we returned to the classroom for our postponed study of poetry, beginning with “Hedgehog.” An early poem of Muldoon’s, “Hedgehog” meditates on the animal of the title as well as the snail, likening the snail to a hovercraft and the hedgehog’s quills to a crown of thorns.

The tentative responses that followed our reading showed how reluctant we can be to express our thoughts about poetry. We are so accustomed to reading straightforward prose that a poem’s roundabout way of making meaning can lead us to doubt ourselves, to sense that there’s something we’re not getting from the poem but should be.

I cannot say precisely why Muldoon chose to run the simile “The snail moves like a/Hovercraft” from the first line to the second, but I can say—and did say to my students—that it’s an example of enjambment, something to try if we want to achieve a similar run-on effect.

As we begin drafting our own poems, I keep thinking about the pleasure of reading that simile, the surprise followed by recognition. Never before had I thought of a snail moving like a propeller-driven hovercraft. And never before had I thought of the hedgehog and the snail as kindred animals for their ability to retreat into themselves.

The snail, the hovercraft, the hedgehog, the crown of thorns: these are now linked in my mind. That’s what “Hedgehog” has given me.


 Writing Ideas Torn from “Hedgehog”

  1. A poem that depicts the similarity between two animals and compares each of the two to something else
  2. A poem that features enjambment