Tag Archives: NAU

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Graduate School

book boxes A few months ago, I attended the AWP Conference where eager representatives from MA and MFA programs stuffed fliers into my hands. They all offered the same possibility: a few years in paradise with nothing to do but write, read, workshop, and inevitably publish. I was drawn into the illusion that ignored the work, the expenses, the debt, and the difficulty in getting anything published.

While preparing for life after NAU, I knew that graduate school was not the only way to become a writer. I could serve overpriced coffee to people in suits, slipping them poems on their receipts to show them my talent, or I could work as a governess for a rich man with gigantic muttonchops who helps me publish my sad story. Or I could take the realistic approach and work, write, and submit short pieces to journals, like most writers I know, gradually building up a longer and longer list of published works.

After I returned from the conference, I received an email from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I had applied to eight schools last fall, and all rejected me but UNL; late in April they informed me they would offer me full funding and a stipend through a research assistantship. It was a lucky break, and I took the offer, not because I believed it was the only path I could take, but because I believed it was the best path for me at the moment. It’s the opportunity to get a Master’s Degree in English without any debt, which is just short of a fantasy these days. I don’t believe I deserve such an opportunity over other applicants, but because I have the opportunity now, it’s my responsibility to make the best of it that I can.

I’m not going just to improve my writing, though of course my emphasis will be in creative writing, and of course I intend to come out of it a better writer. But I also hope to become a more scholarly reader, a better student, a more disciplined person.  I was born into academia, and I can handle it a few more years without losing my mind. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. So I’ll buckle down, pack up my four thousand books and my no. 2 pencils, and plunge into the fire.

-jk

In Which the Pen Name, Nickname, and Legal Name Meet Each Other

Who? More authors than I can count have used a pen name at one point. Dean Koontz has used Aaron Wolfe; Charlotte Bronte used Currer Bell; Daniel Foe, being the creative genius that he was, used Daniel Defoe, not to conceal his identity but to convince his readers he was more gentlemanly. My favorite is Daniel Handler’s pseudonym Lemony Snicket, because Snicket becomes a character in Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events, one who navigates the reader through the troubling plots. I’ve never imagined myself using a pen name, until I realized how many names I’ve gone by.

For most of my life, I’ve gone by my middle name Keene. In middle school, I got tired of correcting people who thought I said Ken or Keenan or Keith, and I also wanted a name requiring no spelling correction. Not Keen, not Keane, not Frank, but Keene! I tried my first name Jeffery, but even then most people misplaced the R, spelling it Jeffrey. So I shortened it to Jeff. This was also around the time I started writing, and I wrote my earliest stories as Jeff Short. But Jeff was not a very pleasant person, nor a very good writer. He was obnoxiously political, and was competitive in music, writing, and grades.

Along the way, I decided that I liked Keene better. Keene Short. It’s a good name for a writer, and frankly I like Keene as a person more than Jeff. Whereas Jeff was picky, Keene embraced just about everything. He had a better sense of humor than Jeff. Most importantly, he gave up competitiveness. Keene wasn’t concerned with being superior with distinction, but with enjoying the show. Jeff slowly diminished into a forgotten nickname.

In the last years of college, I adopted another name: JK. The nickname originated in the place I worked, the NAU Honors Writing Center, which I can only describe as a mythical realm where the drawers are stuffed with candy and sarcasm flows freely from the tutors. My boss began calling me JK, and soon I started signing emails, letters, and even blog posts as JK. Keene now blogs as JK, who can withhold his sarcasm and be somber when the time calls for it but prefers to be lighthearted. You do not know everything about Keene; you don’t need to and I don’t want you to, which is why JK is here as a literary filter.

But I will always be Keene Short, even in publication. JK is a nice nickname, but I can’t see critics taking Collected Stories of JK very seriously. Maybe JK is just the fictionalized version of Keene, and I’m content with that. I don’t think of Keene Short as a pen name because Jeffery Short, to me, isn’t a real person. I’d be lying if I published under Jeffery or Jeff, both strangers to me. I am simply Keene Short.

-jk

Once Upon a Time, Graduation Meant Something

Empty It finally happened. I graduated. I shook hands with the Dean of Arts and Letters and some of my favorite literature professors, and was handed a fancy diploma case for after the real one arrives in the mail. I went through the whole ritual, but when I left the Skydome amidst Flagstaff’s annual early-May snowstorm, I felt about as empty as the diploma case they gave me.

Most of my friends and family expect graduation to be a time of great joy, relief, sadness, and memory. I reflected on many things, but I tend to be reflective in general. For me, graduation offered no profundity. It was a mess of finding the right place, shaking the right hands, and enduring vague speeches about the future. Walking onto stage, having my name (and other information) announced, and receiving a diploma case should have been meaningful experiences, but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking that it was all a show.

Commencement was a self-congratulatory performance for the university, and the profiteering involved in the current education system was not only evident but ever-present. All students were required to have a cap and gown to participate in commencement, and the only way to obtain them, short of cheating and borrowing them from a friend, is to purchase them from a company; I was among those who cheated. After receiving an empty diploma case, students were ushered into two photo shoots. I was literally pulled into position, but I cannot get any of the photos taken unless I spend more money to purchase them. The commencement speeches had nothing to do with any of our own problems, our crippling student debts, an unnavigable job market, a scary world with an even scarier future. Instead, the speeches were about the university’s accomplishments, its growth and benefits, all at our expense.

College is no longer about advancing art and science and law; it’s become a business for the corporations benefiting from the on-campus dining, the corporations who make and sell caps and gowns, the construction companies profiting on new buildings the school can’t afford without cutting valuable tutoring and learning initiative programs. Education is one of the most important assets of the modern world, but the education system has become a method of exploitation.

All through commencement, I felt exploited. That’s not to suggest I did not receive an adequate education. Indeed, my professors exceeded my expectations, and they’ve changed me immeasurably. But college, as a system, profits regardless of anybody’s intellectual, scientific, artistic, political, technical, or social improvement. Instead, it encourages us to bankrupt ourselves so it can grow. In the end, NAU’s leaders do not care whether or not I graduate; they care about getting my money, and that realization hurts. I’m fortunate to have worked with professors who sincerely value their students’ collective improvement, to the point that they run themselves into the ground physically and emotionally by the end of each semester just to help us. But NAU, and the modern college-industrial complex, has done little, if anything, to contribute to its students’ intellectual improvements. I owe nothing to my university, but I do not blame it. This is a national pattern, and all of us are caught up in it. How long will it last? How long can it last before students realize that they are on a conveyer belt for the profit of private firms with no investment in literature, law, environmental science, political science, understanding globalization, or the development of compassion?

And now I’m going to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now I’m plunging myself back into the factory.

Am I wrong about all this? Is it not the case that my friends have been placed on a conveyer belt for the past four years? For the next fifteen? Will the education system ever be returned to the hands of the educators and not the businesses? In a perfect world, the students gain more from a four-year program than the university they attend; we’ll never make it to a perfect world, but I think we deserve more than we’ve been given. We are more than crops with full pockets to harvest from. We are more than fruit to be drained and dried. We are scared, we are angry, we are curious, and we seek understanding. We are passionate and seek the means to express. We are knowledgeable and seek to use our knowledge. We deserve to be treated honestly about what we’ve been given, what we can do, and where we are going. Although I’m disappointed in my graduation, my university, and my country for voting the universities into such positions, I’m far from disheartened. Behind the curtain and the profiteering are professors who still work hard to teach and improve us. It is because of these professors that I have the means to express my discontent, and it is only through these means that I see any possibility for change.

-jk

The Snow, the Writer, the Time

Campus Snow Day

Yesterday started so safely. It was overcast and raining, but the roads were clear. By 11:00 AM, though, the city of Flagstaff was covered in snow and slush. Ponds sprouted in road dips and parking lots became marshes. Northern Arizona University cancelled all classes after 2:00 PM, after everybody was already on campus and desperate to get home. Students, faculty, and staff were told to leave before it got worse.

Com Building

I opted to stay on campus and not wait in the snow swamps amid dozens of tense drivers. I chose not to risk driving down Milton or Butler to get home, not wanting to wait ninety minutes because some inevitably bad drivers congested traffic after skiing their cars into each other. Instead, I found a warm corner on campus and set up shop with everything I needed: my computer, hot chocolate, a lengthy playlist of folk music, and a window giving me an unmitigated view of the snowfall.

Cline and Tree

I not-so-secretly harbor an obsession with snow. It’s often a subject in my writing. I’ve written many poems about snow alone, how it feels against my skin and glows under streetlamps. I’ve set numerous short stories in a mountain town in December, a Russian field in January, a Montanan cabin in February, or Flagstaff in March. Snow delights me immeasurably, and imposes an opportunity to sit back and do what I have so little time to even contemplate. When it snows so monstrously, I refuse to let the cold and darkness drag me down. Instead, I accept them as unexpected gifts. I don’t think sitting in front of a cold window improves my writing, but it often gives me direction and motivation. Yesterday, it forced isolation upon me, and isolation prompts writing. I’m grateful for being ushered indoors sometimes. Otherwise, I might never begin sewing the words together.

-jk