Rain

On this #ThrowbackThursday, I’m thinking about my friends in Sioux Falls as news of the city’s coronavirus hot spot continues to highlight the problems that led to it. I’m broken-hearted for the people who work at Smithfield and their loved ones; i’m sad to see a city I love in such a position. This essay is from 2010, when I moved back to Sioux Falls from Chicago.

Beginning, again

Here I am once again, standing on the cusp of tomorrow.

Above me, the sky is full and dark, a charcoal wash smeared across a canvas. Hints of violet and eggplant blossom in the varying shades of dark, and if I let myself believe it, I think I could reach out and poke that fluffy moisture.

I have seen great mists blow in above the Mediterranean, storms that dazzle the coast with plum and ivory and gold.

I have danced with heavy drops in Chicago, downpours choked with smog and ozone and jazz in complex layers.

And now, I am back in South Dakota. I am glad to be here, but I wonder how it is that I’ve arrived to this place again, and what it is I’m doing. I came back because to some extent I do know what I’m doing—I’m trying to focus on my writing in this city that balances the rural and the urban—but I want answers and reassurance. This morning, however, the sky maintains its distance, and so far, I it offers nothing. I too am equally reserved, because this time, I want to be patient.  I want to find some self-restraint and take advantage of second chances.

***

Patience, I’ve heard, is one of life’s great virtues. It is the “companion of wisdom,” according to Saint Augustine, one of love’s great qualities; it is the ability, according to the dictionary, “to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay.” It is also one of the finer traits missing from my personality. My privileged upbringing did nothing to foster this quality within me, and sometimes I wish my parents would have been more disciplined with me, made me wait for things or work harder to get them. Today, when I bite my lip or tap a foot to silently pass the time between recognizing and obtaining something I desire, I remind myself that I am no longer a child. That I can’t always have my way has been a hard lesson to learn as an adult, but I am always trying to develop and grow. I have learned I cannot move forward if I don’t acknowledge a problem at all. So in my adult decisions, I work to build my tolerance for flaws and setbacks and ambiguity in situations and in people, myself included. And as eager as I am to establish myself as a writer, I’m trying to develop some persistence as I develop my prose.

***

I moved back to Sioux Falls two weeks ago, eager to set up a routine for my life and my writing, now that I’d gotten away from my desire to live at the bar. I’ve been holed up in my apartment since I moved back though, so company is always refreshing. I’d tried to establish order in my writing schedule when I left Chicago for Nebraska six months ago, but cloistered out on the farm, I was desperate for communion with others.

The writer Anais Nin said that her subject matter came not while seated at her desk, but while she was out in the world, living. This I understand. The social aspect of city life and the cosmopolitan culture I love are non-existent where I grew up, and this affects my writing. In Nebraska I can hunker down and immerse myself in the natural world in a way I couldn’t do in Chicago, but my mind grows restless without the challenge of other creative individuals. I need silly conversations, heated debates; most of all I need people who understand what it’s like to call oneself an artist. I need people who understand that like life, this too, is a process, that through art, we can both find and lose our selves.

Here, even though Sioux Falls is about one-fifth the size of Chicago, with 187,000 residents making up South Dakota’s largest city, I can find an appreciation for the slow pace of rural life because it is tempered by the energy of the city. There are poetry readings, a writer’s group, and other creative individuals here. As long as I don’t get hung up on everything that is missing, I tell myself, or fall into distracting ventures, it really is the perfect place to live and focus on my art. Yes, in my craft, too, I realize, I need more patience.

I realized that Sioux Falls really did have what I wanted—a community of friends and reasonably priced expenses for anything worth doing. It offered me the kind of life I could afford to live while trying to make good on all my plans. But in spite of this recognition, I wouldn’t be able to leave Chicago for another couple of years. With the wisdom of more time and the ability to reflect on my actions, at twenty-seven I recognize that my planning and my desire to know what’s coming sometimes eats away at my ability to be patient, to enjoy the moment.

Shaped by the land

Coming back to an appreciation of the outdoors, not just as place, but as neighbor. Here in Sioux Falls the prairie hugs up close to the pavement, and we are urban, but somehow, still wild. A spread of patchwork fields lines both sides of Interstate 90, and livestock discussions are as common as those regarding Sex in the City. There is a toughness of spirit in the minds and actions of the men and women who live here in the Midwest, and even little kids can be tough as crimped wire and sharper than the barbs upon it.

Once, when she was seven, my niece Katie shut her hand in the heavy, gray door of her father’s combine. The latching mechanism caught, holding Katie captive. She worked at the lever to release herself, she told us later, but when her brother Matt found her, she was still pinned at the fingers between combine frame and door. Without the use of her whole body to pull the lever open, she had to wait until Matt heard her holler and could free her. For days, Katie’s fingers were puffed up and purple, ridged like the edges of a lasagna noodle, yet she maintained her stance that using the hand didn’t bother her. Growing up and living in the rural Midwest instills a sense of determination, a sense of possibility in knowing that when things are rough, this too, shall pass.

***

Winters here are irritating, like dank, wet mittens, and by April, South Dakotans are eager for exploration and possibility. This is, I think, what I am after.

***

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” sang Janet Jackson in 1997, twenty-three years after Joni Mitchell lamented the loss of natural habitats in Hawaii. While Jackson turned Mitchell’s observation into a cry of longing for a former lover, today I make no distinction between the kind of bittersweet feelings one might have after losing either place or person. A hasty loss of place or person can haunt anyone.

When my mother and I visit Colombia, where she was born, I sense a combination of familiarity and panic exuding from her. Her country has changed so much since she left it, and while this is good news, it must be terribly disorienting. Sioux Falls has changed for me too, but I still know my way around and I still find that the love I had for this place still wells up in me at random moments. Especially when I’m downtown.

Downtown Sioux Falls is the Phillips Avenue Diner, Smoe’s Bar and the independent bookstores I’ve come to love. Downtown is the mist of the Big Sioux River and the John Morrell Processing Plant; it’s the smell of charbroiled pigs and unwashed bodies. Downtown is old men wrinkling up the library steps like cracks in a stone façade, their tired, slurred language a reminder of the problems all cities have in common.

“Hey, girl, you got a quarter? I’m hungry—wanna get some coffee.”

Downtown is Sioux Quartzite streets and rehab clinics; it is art galleries and Gothic architecture. I used to love walking down Phillips Avenue, the main artery of those cobbled blocks, when I was in college at Augustana. The cozy streets and small shops felt metropolitan and cultured. I know now what my friends who grew up here refer to when they talk about wanting “real culture,” because I’ve lived in other cities since I met them. But Sioux Falls was my first adult, urban love, the first city that drew me in and schooled me in what it means to leave behind a predetermined home and family and create these things out of nothing.

I think about this a lot when I’m with my friends here. Growing up, I thought that my childhood was normal: a mom, a dad, some fights, and some flared tempers. I didn’t realize until I moved away from my rural home that my childhood was idyllic, that most people don’t have what I did. I think about my friends who have cobbled together families out of bar friends and fellow students, how co-workers and running partners might often mean more to someone than her own brother.

Because I’ve left my family and my hometown, I’ve had to set up make-shift families wherever I go. In Chicago it was Biz and Sheila, Mary and Emily, Wes and Callie and Eric. As much as this works for me, over the past nine years I’ve realized that I’ve learned how easy it is to give up and walk away. Thus far I’ve been too selfish and ambitious to deal with imperfections in others, and too scattered to settle for any one thing—so I’ve been okay with the emptiness of this nomadic lifestyle. It made sense while I was completing college and moving around the country, but now that I’m back in Sioux Falls, I want to settle down. I want intimacy and love.

Committing

Settle down? A husband and babies? You?

My friends look amused when I tell them this, but I don’t exactly mean babies. I don’t know if I mean a husband. what I mean is I want to settle down into something meaningful, so I can develop a relationship with my work. I want to develop an eye for my stories and a voice that expresses the energy and emotion of my ideas.

I want to be dedicated to something.

For the first time since my undergrad years I feel as if I know what I am doing—at least in the sense that I am acting with intention—and I want to focus on that and establish a career before I sidetrack myself with wedding vows and bedtime stories. I want to be part of something that transcends my existence. I guess I want to belong. But what does it mean, to belong? What becomes of those we cut off who have no understanding of the how and why behind our wants? What happens to those we force out, into other places? What happens when people can no longer share the spaces they love and jealously cherish?

This question of belonging and displacement is one the United States has been dealing with—or not—for centuries, especially here in South Dakota, although I saw it uniquely flavored in other ways, in the D.C. or Chicago housing projects. What happens when we force others out and take over? What happens when we can no longer be in our home places? I think of all the homeless people I hurried past in Chicago, and I wonder if they too, were once as lost as I’ve been, but with fewer resources and memories of comfort to return to. In all reality, that’s why I left Chicago for Nebraska, then Sioux Falls. I wanted the sense of comfort I had in writing and in people and places I’d known before.

Return

“The literature of illumination reveals this above all,” writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”

It’s taken me four years to get back here, and when I think about how the stars have been up there, glowing and burning out for that entire time, I want to be more patient. I want to make things happen, but I’m learning that I can’t force them. I can’t force words or actions any more than I can force the sky to hang onto the rain, or to spill its stars.

***

It is 4 a.m, a warm, June morning.

Across from me, a friend lights a cigarette and his face is made sharp and shadowed by the red spark as it shrinks and grows, shrinks and grows. The light falls on his face in eerie patterns, a man-made optic trick that silences me. This illusion cast on a human face wonder if I’m being delusional in my own way, finding meaning—or worse, creating it—where there is none. Is South Dakota the answer? Do I see what’s really in front of me, as it is, or as I want it to be?

I sit in the draft of smoke, smelling carbon and sulfur for a couple of minutes, maybe longer.Then my friend becomes human, leaves his shadow.

“Mars,” he says, calling me. “Come over here for a minute. Listen. Close your eyes.”

I get up from the blue camp chair I’m warming and shuffle over to him, bare feet on rough concrete. It’s cool out now, and in my hoodie I shiver at the touch of skin to cold floor. My vision has adjusted to the soft, weird light around us, so when I am standing in front of this friend, I shut my eyes and wait for whatever is coming.

The space that fills me is empty. For a moment, this blackness consumes me, and silence floods in. I am standing in front of the patio’s wooden rail, fingertips touching wood, just barely, when  he takes my arm, and guides me.

“Breathe in,” he says, and as if in a trance, I inhale. These directions sharpen the small sounds around me, and for the second time tonight, I think I can hear the whisper of rain and wet tires. I don’t want to rely on my sense of hearing right now though, or any of the outward senses. What I want is to focus on the natural world around me.

In the blackness that holds me, I feel myself slow down, and I become something like a haze that drifts across water in the mornings. Behind closed eyes I see black, and in my body I sense it. In the breath of air that now fills me, I am aware of warm darkness and decomposition, of ozone. That of the earth around me. I want to be part of this earth, anchor myself to this spot and hold on forever. But I know better. I know that time will pass and I’ll want something new. I’ll want to go, a nomad again. The trick is, I’m learning, to be patient and wait for this yearning to move on. Or at the very least, to wait until I’ve learned the lessons I need to be prepared for whatever comes.

I try to shut out my other senses and focus only on that internal rhythm, but I can’t ignore the scents around me. There is the delicacy of cut grass, almost squelched by the rich carbon muddiness drifting up from the dirt below it. For years and years, this scent was all I had known, growing up on a farm, growing up in the middle of flat fields that left the earth overturned and exposed. I am more familiar with scents of the city now— the spew of mechanized traffic, the intersecting whiff of a passerby’s cologne and the rich scent of Thai or Indian food. But right now, this inebriation, this complete indulgence in the lush air of early morning is as sparkly as the dewy prairie spread out beyond us.

“Hey, I—“

“Shh, keep your eyes closed… listen.”

The silence has receded with this last instruction, and when I switch my focus from scent and memory to the rich fullness of this idea, to “listen,” I hear it.

The rain is falling again, harder than before, an andante across the shadows. I am like Barbara Kingsolver, who revels in the warmth of an Appalachian rain on her family’s farm. Like her, “I love this rain; my soul hankers for it.”

I become the landscape, a bed of parched soil; I allow my senses and pores the freedom to open and receive the moment and all it offers.

“Ahh…the rain,” I sigh, breathing slowly. As I regain my words and my body, a great flooding of emotion plants me in the moment.

I stand in the rain, caught up in murmurings of a waking world.

Much as I must wait to feel the promise in the storm clouds, wait for the champagne sunrise of morning, I must wait to see what comes with tomorrow. I cannot sense a rhythm in the patter of the drops around us, but what amazes me about the power of falling water, no matter where it enfolds me, is not that it bursts though the celestial ceiling with the force it has, but that that it can hover above us for hours, teasing, building slowly.

If patience is a learned art, a key to helping us be present in the world around us, whatever world it is, then understanding the process of waiting for the things to come will be my greatest lesson. I don’t know why we fall in love with a place or a craft or find safety in a person, but I know we do. I know it is these things that matter.

Remembering Terri Schiavo

Small lights illuminate a star.

Photo by Elias Tigiser on Pexels.com

A brain goes rogue

on December 26, 2004, I experienced a major brain bleed that sent me into a coma and brain surgery. Up until that event, I had been a totally healthy 22-year-old. And then POP, just like that, what I knew of health and normal and independence vanished. Waking up was a two-day process after brain surgery. When I finally had my wits about me, I learned that I’d experienced a stroke, I couldn’t walk and might never live on my own again.

It would take another day for me to get up and test my legs — they worked— and months before I could drive again.  But I did it. In early 2005, I returned to some semblance of a normal life.

At the same time that I was gaining a sense of balance, both physical and metaphorical, another young woman was dealing with her own cerebrovascular event. In 1990, Terri Schiavo, then 26, had a heart attack and collapsed. The loss of oxygen to her brain sent her into a “persistent vegetative state.” For years, her husband, Micheal, had rallied against her parents, insisting that Terri would not want to live in such a state. Her Catholic parents said she was still a human, still their daughter, and they fought his attempts to end her life.

At just 22 when my brain went rogue, I was horrified by Terri’s situation. I watched news updates from my  parents’ couch, torn between siding with  Terri’s parents and her husband.

If it were me, what would I want?

Decisions

In those first days of recovery, before I could drive again, and thus before my independence was re-granted, I decided that I would have wanted to die.

“If I stroke out again,” I’d tell my dad, “you better let me die.”

He’d nod, knowingly. That’s what he wanted for himself, too.  I didn’t talk about it with my very Catholic mom, who I knew viewed every life as sacred, and would do anything in her power to keep me alive. As time went on and follow-up visits persisted, with each new care provider I saw, I would be given paperwork for an advance directive.

“It’s not a bad idea to state what you’d like done in the event of another emergency,” they’d say, handing me the folder. I’d carry it home to throw away, not wanting to think about such heavy decisions.

For the 14 years that Terri had been caught between her parents and her husband’s decisions,  the court in her state of Florida sided with her husband. But in 2005, President George W. Bush signed legislation that allowed Federal courts to have a say. Terri’s feeding tube, the thing keeping her alive, came out.

On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo’s decades’ long ordeal was over.

Today

Today marks the 15 year anniversary of  Terri’s death, and I have been thinking about her off and on all day, as I do every year. I didn’t know her and didn’t know of her until my own medical crisis brought hers into my world. But in the past 15 years, her legacy has continued to orbit in my mind.

When I finally returned to life on my own in May of 2005, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since before my stroke.

“Mars,” he shouted from across the packed bar I had entered with a friend. “Shit, I can’t believe you’re here. I heard you’d been Terri Schiavo’d or something.”

I assured him that I hadn’t and sent a heart call out to Terri, feeling connected to her despite our differences. I’m so sorry you died, and I lived.

When I moved to Chicago fifteen months later and began volunteering on the stroke and traumatic brain injury floor at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab), I felt Terri’s presence as I talked, or walked, or sat with patients recovering from their own traumas.

When I studied the therapeutic power of writing during grad school, I felt her presence when researching and writing about disability.

And in my current life and work, I think of Terri every time I write about advance directives, difficult conversations and life support paperwork. I do some writing for a company that has designed a web platform and coach system to help caregivers navigate responsibilities in their role of caring for an adult loved one, so these topics come up a lot.

And outside of my own  bubble, I see a raging debate about who should get care during this time of COVID-19, how those decisions are made and what it does to those who are actually making decisions.

On this anniversary of her death, I think of Terri not as someone who died stripped of dignity, but as someone who we should all think about on occasion. We should all have in place our desires for our own end of life so that no matter how it comes or when, we’re able to have a say in what we want.

Love and light to you, Terri.

 

Don’t be a sponge

loki couch

Loki the dog is great at getting stuck in couch potato mode.

In my work as a freelance writer and editor, I’m currently engaged in a project designed to help unpaid caregivers find more time for themselves and make it easier to do the extra work they do in caring for a loved one. Free time is valuable and hard to come by for so many of us, but for working caregivers who deal with concerns for their loved ones while at work and then again when the return home,  it’s an even more fleeting thing.

As I recently reviewed caregiver news online, I stumbled across this article in Stria, “a media platform for the longevity market.” The piece explores data that shows how interdependence develops between older married/partnered couples. It was interesting to me from a working perspective; maybe it’s something I can do some more research on and write about later, I thought. But as I read, the findings struck me as something that’s applicable to me, now.

“We all know couples that are joined-at-the-hip couch potatoes, enjoying nothing more than streaming a hit show while sharing a loaded pizza,” writes author Kevyn Burger. “Equally familiar are the couples who regularly hit the gym together, then treat themselves by splitting a post-workout protein shake.”

I cringed a bit when I read that.

My TV-loving partner is not responsible for my decisions to sit with him and get sucked onto something terrible like Younger or 9-1-1, and yet…I find myself doing this more often than I’d like over the winter. I could be reading, working out or visiting a friend. Instead… I’m couch-potatoing it. I’ve been mad at myself for doing this in the past, but when I read this article and gained confirmation that negative behaviors like this can have a particular bad psychological effect  as one ages (not to mention the extra physical effects of weight gain, in my case) I felt called to action.

The article notes that researchers are finding that this sponge-like tendency can lead to chronic issues in the future, and cites Courtney Polenick, assistant professor of psychiatry and faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

“We need to look at the broader picture and gather information about what each person is managing and also what couples jointly manage,” she is quoted as saying. “This study looks at the impact of chronic conditions across a long time frame. We need additional research about how spouses interact to help one another and how couples jointly manage multiple chronic conditions at a daily level.”

Winter is almost over, I hope, and at the very least we have longer days now. When the dogs, the couch, the blankets and the TV beckon, I’ve been working hard to remind myself that there are other things I could be doing to more purposefully engage my brain and my body.  I have yet to use that time for the treadmill, but I am making my way though a few physical books — and I’ve been writing more!

What are you doing to stay healthy, independent and still connected to your partner?

 

Could this disruption be a win?

Earlier this week, Southern New Hampshire University published an article by Dr. Gregory Fowler,  global campus president for SNHU. I always admire Dr. Fowler’s thoughts on disruption, innovation and education, and this piece stood out to me not just as an educator but as a freelance writer as well.

I see that higher education has changed in the 20 years (yikes, really?!) since I took my first college class, and I see that it has changed even more in the nearly 10 years that I’ve been on the other side of the classroom. Technology, the game changer here, has also become a game changer in the work that my BA prepared me for: journalism.

We see newspapers crumbling, TV news roaring ahead at insane and harmful paces, and we even see sites like Reddit becoming sources and guides for journos working on story ideas. Technology has changed how the world works, or at least how the developed world works, and these times (#Coronavirus) are giving everyone a chance to see how tech can help them do their jobs — like it or not.

A few days ago, I said I felt a bit smug about the security of my professional world being a digital one. That was probably a crappy way to word things, but it was true. I felt good about my work life amid the instant changes others were dealing with. Yet at the same time, I know that even the online world is in for a series of real disruptions over the next few months. It’s not just the education sector that is feeling rattled; offices that can are now put in the position of granting work-from-home status to employees despite years of saying no to such things. I’m happy to see this happen; in fact, I left my last desk job because I could not work from home, although my job required that I sit at a computer all day…which I could do at home.

As the world around us shifts in a new way during what is for many the first week of working from home, I’m curious to see just how much it will impact the ways business as usual moves forward. Will the meme I saw last week prove true? I don’t remember the image, but the caption said something like “Working from home/Time to see just how many of those meetings could have been emails.”

I don’t want to wish cabin fever and the confines of social distancing on anyone in a bad way, but what if this disruption could ultimately get more people IN school, as more schools put in place eLearning structures? What if it could get more people OUT of the office while still working?

 

Moving online a bigger shock than COVID-19

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I’m a bit ashamed say it, but as an online educator, I’ve been feeling a little smug this week.

I’m not scrambling to convert classes or learn new software, and I’m not worried about the future of higher education as I know it–well, at least not because of  coronavirus pandemic shifts. I’m not faced with high attrition rates because my students don’t know how to use new software, or don’t have data or space in which to use it.

I’m smug because although people I know are still poo-pooing online education as a “real” means of education, these same people are being forced to give it a shot. Ideally, they’d have a much smoother, more welcoming introduction to teaching online, like I did, eight years ago. It would certainly make them bigger proponents of the method. There will a lot of cracks for them and their students to fall through with this instant setup.

But all that aside, instead of basking too much in my “ease” of academic life, I’ve been trying to learn from this disruption. My newsfeeds are full of articles, tips sheets and suggestions.

This article, from Inside Higher Ed offers “practical advice” for temporarily teaching online. There are good points in it, by my favorite, as a seasoned online instructor, are:

Create a class communication plan so students know where to go and what to expect; address questions like:

  • Where to send questions
  • How quickly will you respond to emails; how quickly will you respond to discussion posts
  • How to reach you with any urgent needs or questions
  • What sort of regular communications you will send out to the class (e.g. weekly reviews and/or updates)

I like these points because students need some stability amid this shift, and telling them what they can expect from their instructor is ALWAYS a good policy. It’s even more important online, where they don’t get to connect physically.

Another piece, this one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that

Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal — they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations. American higher education has already endured several slow-moving disasters over the past 40 years: the radical defunding of public institutions, the casualization of academic labor, the militarization of campus security, and the erosion of faculty governance. As a result, the very instructors now tasked with the herculean transition are already working in extreme conditions: Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of college and university teaching is performed by non-tenure-track faculty members or by graduate students, many of whom conduct heavy course loads without health insurance and with suppressed wages, housing insecurity, and stifling debt.

In essence, the problem is that instructors are being asked to turn their classes into virtual classes in a split second (compared to how long it takes to truly prep a class), and they are already overburdened. When asked to do this, and then doing it becomes acceptable, what else will universities ask of these folks?

The answer, in part, lies in this third piece, from Rebecca Barrett-Fox. As a writing coach, teacher and researcher, Barrett-Fox seems to have a lot of irons in the fire. We all do, I get it. I just appreciate that she’s not just in academe.

Her points 2, 3 and 14 are the best balancing act I’ve seen thus far:

2. Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything. REFUSE to do any synchronous work.

3. Do not record lectures unless you need to. (This is fundamentally different from designing an online course, where recorded information is, I think, really important.) They will be a low priority for students, and they take up a lot of resources on your end and on theirs. You have already built a rapport with them, and they don’t need to hear your voice to remember that.

14. Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

Barrett-Fox offer practical advice that is geared toward sanely navigating this moment/semester as an instructor, but she’s put some thought into how that will spill over and help students, too.

After all, anyone who teaches, who puts in the hours, the research and the organization–virtually or in-person–does so because it’s something they enjoy, and they want their students to get something out of it too. This is a key thing to remember as universities fret over what this might mean for their bottom lines. Now is not the time to worry about that. Students, staff and faculty should come first.

I’m continuing to learn from my peers as they/we muddle through what it means to teach in 2020, but right now, I’m also feeling extremely lucky that my creative writing students and I can just hang out and do our thing. This week they’re working on scene and setting, and they’ve read “High in Hell,” which does such a great job of bringing the African country Djibouti to life though scene and setting. I’d like to say everyone should read this piece of literary journalism to understand just how lucky we here in the US are, lucky to have tech disruptions and tech and any resources at all.

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.

National Poetry Month

abstract black and white blur book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

April is National Poetry Month, and the Academy of American Poets has a lot of tools available on their site to help you celebrate. One of those tools offers “30 ways to celebrate” poetry throughout the month.  Check it out!

There are some good options in the list;  numbers 3, 7, 8, 12, 15, 19 and 29 are my faves. Which ones interest you?

My own methods of celebrating include leading a poetry workshop later this month, attending a poetry night and open mic, and participating in a “write a poem a day” challenge with 100+ other poets. We’re on day 2, and so far I’ve cranked out two poems.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’m not a fan of “prompts” to help me write, but so far, the two prompts put forth in the group have spoken to me.  I’d share them here, but I actually think they could become something publishable, so I’ll refrain, at least for now.

I hope National Poetry Month treats you well and turns you on to some new words, forms and poets!

After the flood

Rattle, an online and print publication dedicated to promoting poetry, sponsors (among other amazing things) a weekly poetry challenge. In this challenge, writers must respond to events of the previous week and submit them by Friday.  I’m not much of a “prompt” writing person, mostly because I don’t like to try to make something work around an idea that isn’t mine. No, that’s not ego; its just that I have a hard time feeling inspired by someone else’s idea. So it’s more of an inspiration thing.

Recently, however, I decided to give the poets respond challenge a try.

I grew up in Nebraska, and in the past few weeks, the whole state has been dealing with flooding.  This poem, “After the flood,” is a response to that.

After the Flood

Yesterday, we watched the Niobrara River,
hungry for years, open wide
and swallow our world.
She took the corncrib, the house,
and everything we’ve worked for
all these long, hard years.
Great-grandpa Joseph dug the well by hand
and kerosene lantern in the 1880s.
He dug deep to hit the Ogallala Aquifer,
said he wanted to give his descendants
the gift of easy access to water.
With my headlamp on, this morning
 I watched my daughter’s newborn 4-H calf
struggle against unending bounty,
take its last, wet breath, and float by.
She’ll understand that her 4-H season is over —
she’s lost a calf before. But I don’t know how
to explain the move to town, how to tell her
that our life on the farm is over.

 

I heard back from Rattle yesterday; I didn’t “win” the challenge. But that’s OK. With hundreds or maybe thousands of submissions, I knew it was a long shot. And it was just fun to try and respond to a prompt that allowed me to be inspired by whatever spoke to me.  If you’d like to read the poem that “won” (rightfully so, it’s great!),  you can read it here.