Tag Archives: English

Another Summer, Another Syllabus

WorkingThis fall will be my third year teaching first-year composition at the college level, and my fifth time drafting my syllabus from scratch. Some instructors keep a syllabus, but so far, I’ve opted to rebuild and try something new. Fifth time’s the charm, or maybe not.

Each time I teach an introductory writing class, I have made significant changes to the syllabus, the assignments, the readings. I change the amount of points that participation is worth, because I am still redefining what qualifies as sufficient participation. Should I have more shorter assignments or just a few really long essays? How can I get students to read what is required? I’ve never believed in reading quizzes, but this year I may try them out.

I am returning to some of the standard readings I’ve used from my first semester in Nebraska, way back in Fall, 2016, during simpler, less stupid times. I will still assign Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’m also adding new readings, like Tiffany Midge’s essay “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” and Joy Castro’s essays “Grip” and “Getting Grip.”

Every semester is a tri-weekly exercise in trial and error, and to a degree I regret doing this to my students. I have been in classes where professors try new things and talked excitedly about their brand new syllabus, and now, after three years on the other side of the classroom, I wonder if I shouldn’t just repeat what is familiar, but I know that repeating even the most familiar trials will still result in plenty of errors. Every class is different, and within those classes are unpredictable factors.

Students might hate what I assign. They might not. Conversely, I might hate teaching something they end up loving. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement. The question is how can I teach them this lesson–that speakers struggle to connect with their audiences in the most ideal circumstances–without simply telling them it’s the case. Teaching is like writing in that showing is preferred over telling, but just like writing too, honesty is the best policy.

So, this year, I will write at the top of my syllabus “Please anticipate technical difficulties.” Extra credit to students who pay enough attention to notice it.


On Writing as a Profession (But Not as a Career)

IMG_4605For me, writing is a practice. More than a hobby, writing is a profession, though I’ve never been paid for it. Writing is work that I enjoy, but it’s not labor. It’s production, but not a job.

My job is to teach on an organized schedule broken into lesson plans, weeks, units, semesters, and academic calendars. I know roughly what I’ll be doing on May 10 (grading final papers) and I know what I’ll be doing on January 10 (introducing a syllabus). Between those dates, I have a little more room for spontaneity, but not much. This is a job, for better or worse: reliably predictable and strictly regimented.

As such, I cannot call writing a job or a career. The point isn’t to make money by providing a unique service, but to make stories and essays, some of which I publish on this blog and others I submit to journals with a broader readership, almost always operating on minuscule budgets. But I can call writing a profession.

I want to completely separate the word profession from its frequent association with economics and careerism. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word profession to Anglo-Norman and Old French. The OED cites one of the earliest uses of the word to a thirteenth century text called the Ancrene Wisse, meaning “manual for anchoresses.” Authored by an unknown medieval priest, possibly in Wales, the Ancrene Wisse was a religious manual addressed to three sisters to instruct their code of spiritual, monastic conduct. This text, like most early uses of profession, aligns with the OED‘s first definition of the word: “The declaration, promise, or vow made by a person entering a religious order. . . Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.”

Writing may not be a religious order (though graduate school certainly feels monastic at times), but writing is a profession in its oldest sense, a solemn declaration, a promise. When I write, I profess what I am capable of knowing at the time, and I do so for the creative and intellectual benefit of my readers (first) and myself (second). More importantly I read the writing of others, to benefit from my fellow cloistered writers. Writing is a profession of what I know and want to know, a profession of the questions I have.

Not everything needs to be monetized. I don’t want to market my writing as an asset, and I certainly don’t want to think of writing as an extension of my own commodification. If I do one day get paid to write, I’ll be grateful. If not, I’ll be happy for the stories I’ve had published online for the world to view for free. That my professions can be made public is what matters.


Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.


Graduate School, Season Two

teapotAmong the many things coming this Fall is the second season of me being in Graduate School. This next year looks promising, and I’m looking forward to the goofy Nebraska antics, the creative writing classes I’ll be taking, and finally teaching a class on my own.

I hope the next year of Graduate School corrects some of the mistakes of last season. For example, the protagonist last year came off as exceedingly pretentious, especially in his attitude toward the setting. The protagonist spent too much time complaining about the Midwest, and while the “missing home narrative” was compelling, it got old quickly. I for one hope the main character does more than sit around making bad jokes about the prairies.

The next season will most likely see more of the main character trying to get published, and the audience will enjoy the conflict between devotion to graduate studies versus the effort it takes to write, read, submit, and convince literary magazines to publish his work. Many of last season’s episodes focused on various low-stakes self-contained stories that take place in the protagonist’s apartment or the English department, which is why I hope Graduate School will venture out a little more this season. As a show with a whole city for a setting, it’s strange that so much of it uses only two interior buildings to shoot in.

The show has many strange components: the romance plots are all backstory, the drama is all internal, there’s very little dialogue, and the protagonist doesn’t seem to have changed in the first season, at least not in ways the audience would hope for. Where’s his arc?

The real question is whether or not Graduate School will go on for a third season, or if the show will wrap up with the protagonist just getting a Master’s Degree and stopping his college pursuits after that. Future years of Graduate School could be quite worthwhile, but without major character development, this could be Graduate School’s last year. In any case, I look forward to the season premier, and I hope the coming year will be, at the very least, entertaining.


The Lost-and-Found People

A new journal entry by Karl.

September 16, 2011

                So I’ve decided to keep writing, even if nobody is listening to me, cause I think it might help me cope with how weird college is. Again, if you happen to be named Autumn Bartlett and if you’re missing a copy of The Book Thief, I have it. I thought about giving it to the lost-and-found, but I’ll explain why I didn’t do that later. Also again, if you have any advice for an English Major at NAU about how to do college and not get buried in a flaming stack of papers about post-colonial transcendentalist communes in the Yucatan or whatever, please leave a comment and I’ll love you forever. Even if it’s bad advice it’s probably better than what I’m doing now.

                I need to tell you why I didn’t put the book in the lost-and-found in the library, and it kinda ties into why I suck at doing college, and it’s kind of a long story, so bear with me. I was in my dorm room reading The Tempest by William Shakespeare for that post-colonial class with Dr. Corddry. Apparently, Shakespeare got involved in the whole post-colonial scene, or at least that’s what Dr. Corddrey made it sound like. I wasn’t paying that much attention when he talked about it. I was too distracted by his shining bald head. Anyway, I was in my dorm reading Shakespeare and then it starts to smell like burned popcorn. In Cowden, it always smells like burned popcorn, because everybody burns their popcorn as a general rule, but then the fire alarm went off. Some Honors jerk was too busy playing concertos and curing cancer to pay attention to his popcorn, which I guess caught fire in the kitchen down the hall.

                Anyway, we all had to leave as part of regulation or something. Our RA, Harington, forced us out. Harington is cool dude, I guess, but I think he’s pretty lenient with the booze and the pot in his hall. I think he has connections to the drug dealers, but I don’t wanna assume anything. Anyway, he led us away from the flaming Honors popcorn, we waited around in front of Cowden for a while, and then we all went back in. But then I saw an mp3 in the little cubicle space between the two sets of doors in Cowden that keep people in and keep people out (cause you need a card to get into the second door, and when you don’t have it, you just kinda wait around in this cubicle thing between the first and second doorways until somebody comes and lets you in, and usually they glare at you for ten minutes or something when they do).  I picked it up and Harington and I looked at it for a minute.

                “Should I give it to the lost-and-found?” I asked him.

                “I wouldn’t trust them if I were you.”

                “Why not?”

                “They take things from the lost and found and trade them for other things.”

                “Who’s they?”

                “Nobody knows who runs the whole thing,” Harington said, “but it starts with the janitors, or some of them at least, and then the students who work at the Union get involved, Student Life, Campus Dining, Housing, and from there it just kinda goes up rank by rank.”

                “What are you talking about?” I really had no idea what he meant at the time.

                “The lost-and-found people. They keep tabs on every lost-and-found item that anybody puts in a box, and they barter them off to people who have the right connections. But you have to barter the really good stuff, or else just use jacks, queens, and kings.”

                “I still don’t get it.”

                He took the mp3 and said he knew who owned it, and then told me that jacks are individual drinks (like a bottle of beer, a shot of whiskey), queens were six-packs of good beer or twelve-packs of the cheap kind, or a bottle of whiskey, or something along those lines, and that kings were individual joints. I don’t know what aces might have been, but if they were more than pot, I could only imagine what they were. I went back to my room, and the next day I looked for the lost-and-found boxes in Cowden and asked the front office if anything valuable ever went missing from them.

                “Nope,” he said. I think his name was Donner or something.  “Never. People come back for their stuff.”

                “Do people ever trade things for stuff in the lost-and-found?”

                “What, like an underground network of lost-and-found people who keep tabs on every item ever put into the lost-and-found boxes? That’s crazy.”

                I thought it was crazy, too, but I didn’t want to let Autumn’s book get bartered off for a bottle of beer, so I asked this guy in my Honors class, Eddie, if he knew anything about it. Eddie is a guy who knows his way around campus, and he’s only a freshman. He just has those kinds of connections, I guess. He told me that it was true, and that he traded a bottle of vodka for a two water bottles and an iPod. I didn’t think that those were worth a bottle of vodka, but he had lost his iPod earlier that week and later found it in some chick’s purse at a party, who apparently traded a six-pack of good beer for it just because it had every song by the Rolling Stones on it.

                So that’s what I learned about NAU’s secret underground lost-and-found people, and that’s why I didn’t put Autumn’s book in any lost-and-found box. Not that I think anybody would trade alcohol for a book, but it’s the principle that kinda scares me a bit. I guess it’s how the secret economy here works. Now I keep looking at the people who clean things in the Union like they’re watching me, waiting for me to drop something so they can swipe it and barter it off for something else.

                If I ever wanted to get some cool crap, I can just ask Harington or Eddie to hook me up. But I’m not. I still really suck at college, especially socializing. So many English Majors I’ve met are all over the place, going to parties and poetry slams and hanging out at coffee shops talking smack at the man or whatever it is that poets do these days (I really have no clue). You know how much I’m terrible at socializing? Today is my birthday, and I spent it in the library watching the janitors wander back and forth in front of me. And then I did homework, reading about symbolism and metaphors. I still suck at college, and my backpack still smells like cinnamon apple crisps or something from Autumn’s perfume. I hope I learn get better. I hope I don’t get caught up in some sleazy business with the RAs or the lost-and-found people. And I’m still hoping I’ll understand what Shakespeare has to do with colonization.

                That’s my story. Good luck with whatever you have to deal with, and wish me luck, too.