Seeing each other

Photo cred to my honey, Sean.

May 1. Finally.

After a tough semester, wherein I started out with 122 students in four composition I and II classes, I am finally done grading. I am done with submitting grades. I am done with students…at least until May 6, when my next term starts. It is a small break, but a good one, and it will allow me to send out some submissions I’d neglected in April.

I had hoped to do more writing last month but had to put my goals aside to focus on my students. One of the things I DID accomplish for myself last month was submitting a poem and a picture of my eyes to a project put together by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition is part of a project called “Growing Freedom, the art of John and Yoko.” It features music, written word, images, and I think even more interactive events like yoga and talks. It’s been featured in Iceland and Germany so far, and went up in Montreal on April 25. According to Yoko’s call for submissions, it will continue to make its way around the world.


THE INSTALLATION ARISING WILL CONTINUE TO GROW
AND WILL BE EXHIBITED IN MANY COUNTRIES.

I VERY MUCH HOPE FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION.

– Yoko Ono


Focused on giving women a chance to share “a testament of harm done to you for being a woman,” it sounds like such an interesting way to draw audience participation and raise awareness about a current topic in a new way.

My understanding is that anyone who submits material will have their writing and photo added to the installation. Today I received an email confirming they’d received my work and thanking me for “participating” in the exhibition. I think that means I’m in, but I replied and asked if they could confirm that my submission had been added and maybe even take a picture for me.

If you’d like to submit to the exhibition, you’ll find instructions in the link I shared to the exhibition.

If I hear back, I’ll post an update with the picture. If not, I’ll post an update about the project. Or, if you’d like to learn more, check it out!

The decline of critical thinking

If I say “composition,” what do you think of?

If you’re an artist or photographer, perhaps you think of the way a piece comes together– its composition. That’s a pretty nice association to have with that word. But for many people, I think the word brings up the dreaded high school or college composition class. In my line of work, as a college writing instructor, that’s what I’m talking about, nine times out of ten.

And believe me, that word is just about as cringe-worthy for me as it is for many of my students.

If course, the class is not a struggle for me in the way it is for them; I’ve already figured out what a thesis statement is and I can * mostly * write in an organized manner. What is a challenge for me, however, is grading the papers that my students labor to churn out.

Because I teach online and have truncated semesters (8 weeks for one school, 10 for the other), I have grading deadlines, respectively, of one week and three days. It’s tough to turn around student papers in such a short amount of time and give them adequate feedback, but it is where I spend most of my hours. Pointing out their errors and explaining why they are errors is the only way for them to learn how to do something correctly. That’s kind of a “duh,” statement, I know. But one of the greatest values of a comp class is the way it models and molds critical thought, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.

Not only am I teaching my students how to discover, outline, write and support an argument through research, I’m teaching them the importance of thinking critically about the world around them. And especially with persuasive writing, they’re learning the importance of using facts and data to back up a claim, not just stating an opinion and calling it good.

Again, more “duh” statements, I know. But I was just reading a paper about the benefits of getting a technical degree over a four-year liberal arts degree, and I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I completely agree with my student: not all people should pursue a liberal arts degree and the debt that comes with it. (Diving into that issue is a whole ‘nother post.) But on the other hand, this student, who works in a trade industry currently, had written a whole paper full of opinion statements. There weren’t any facts, there was no data to back up claims, and the general assumptions peppering the document could easily be shot down by someone in the know.

And there’s the problem. I’m seeing so many students come into class totally ignorant of how to back up a claim with fact. Yes, yes, they are students and I can’t expect them to know everything, or else what good would I be? I agree. But I’m seeing this more and more in those who’ve grown up on social media, or, in the case of this student, those who don’t come from a background that encourages education. I don’t want this to be a political post, but as I see our government champion more cuts to education while also issuing statements that are not backed in fact, at a time when soundbites reign supreme, I worry about the collective intellect and our society’s ability to spot, source and understand the truth.

We already know high school doesn’t prepare kids for adult life. Now, it seems like they’re not even prepared to navigate the mistruths of our world because they don’t know how to think critically about it.

I went back to my student’s paper halfway through writing this post, and I felt a renewed sense of importance regarding the work. I still don’t like grading virtual stacks of papers, but I’m not one for marching in the streets, either. It seems like grading papers and stressing the importance of critical thinking to my students could become, for me, a form of activism. It’s sort of a nice thought; I’d like to hang on to it when the grading load is heavy and the deadlines are tight.

Does it matter?

Not a part of Chicago’s subway system, but fitting. Credit to Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

When I lived in Chicago and would tell people at a party that I was writing a memoir, there would always be one person who’d ask, “What makes you think your life is so special that anyone would want to read about it?” It was almost always a guy, and although this person wasn’t trying to be a dick, it was clear that he really believed that a random person’s story probably wasn’t that special.

I’d tell my inquisitor that I had survived a stroke just a few years before; learning to walk again, do math, drive, FUNCTION, had been a challenge. I wanted to offer hope to anyone who had gone through some similar setback, I’d say. A “Whoa,” or a “Hmm, I’d probably read about that,” would often follow.

Creative writers, especially memoirists, can be labeled as navel-gazers for writing about themselves. Any one of us who writes about life’s experiences could be seen that way, I suppose, if we impart our own spin or understanding on the experiences we’re writing about.

But I’d argue that even if it is not as polished as it could be (like this blog!), writing about the human condition and one’s experience can shed light on something in a new way for a new reader.

Today is day 6 of the poetry challenge I’m participating in, and I’m thinking about all this because of the poem I wrote for our prompt. Descort was the form, and “downtown” was the word of inspiration.

Here’s my crack at it:

Downtown

My favorite schizophrenic
rode the Red line
with me Mondays and Wednesdays.
 The people around us,
the many voices,
added
 to the cacophony of the city.
Oh, how I loved that Chicago grit,
that
you could be
alone in togetherness with so many.


After writing this, I started thinking about “my favorite schizophrenic.” This man would often be on the train when I’d get on in the morning, and he’d ride downtown with me. Somehow, we frequently rode in the same car, and fascinated, I’d watch him have conversations with himself.

Today, I feel so naive whenever I think of him.

Until my time in Chicago, I didn’t understand the depths of mental illness and its correlation to the homeless population.

My only experiences with the homeless were in Bogota, where my mom would always yank me away from staring or trying to give a homeless person a few pesos. Even though she would become a mental health counselor, she never offered any lessons on why the person conducting an invisible orchestra might be homeless.

So as I think about the man, a character in real life, and a person in a poem now (I also wrote about him in grad school), I hope that anyone stumbling across this post takes a minute to learn more about mental health, homelessness and their connections.

These resources are a good place to start
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Healthcare for the Homeless Council
Mental Illness Policy Org

Posting a few websites is not much, I know. And drawing on my memories to write a poem to fit this “purpose” of completing a challenge could probably be looked on as appropriation by some. But I believe that art can make a difference for others while also allowing the artist to gain something new.