The Unintentional Reader: Is It You?

In my first year writing course at the University of Washington, Tacoma, students have completed their first of three essays for this quarter, a brief piece of writing known as “the personal essay.” The theme of the course is “Create Your Own Adventure,” so their topics varied from cooking to snowboarding. A bit of explanation: instead of assigning them specific topics this quarter, they are free to choose their own within the parameters of three general categories: 1. The Personal Essay; 2. Rhetorical Analysis essay; and 3. Argument essay. By the time they leave the course, they will have gained a bit of experience in writing the kinds of essays which they may encounter in some form in their other courses.

This week, we have been discussing the meaning of “rhetoric,” applying our analytical lens to essays in The Best American Essays, 7th College Edition edited by Robert Atwan (2014). Believe it or not, those of you out there who did not particularly enjoy your first year writing course, we’ve been having some great conversations about context, audience, and the making of meaning.

One of the toughest concepts for any writer–myself included–is the notion of “audience.” When you’re a first year college student taking a composition course with 19 other first year college students, who can your audience be outside of your instructor and a few classmates? How can I make this writing “real” for them? My experiment (if I can get them to buy into it) is to allow me the privilege of sharing excerpts from their work on this blog. I want them to meet their “unintended reader.” Who is this mysterious person who stumbles across an essay in a happy set of circumstances? I want to meet this person! At any rate, the idea that someone outside of our classroom may read their work sounds like a good way to give them a sense of an actual audience rather than a manufactured one.

For this to work, I need your help: my students need readers!

So I am inviting you–YOU, the mysterious entity who is reading these very words–to stay tuned for some interesting pieces of writing from some highly motivated first year college students. The deadline for their work will be in a few weeks, so here is how I plan to prime the pump in the meantime. As this blog will be posted on Facebook, I will be inviting all of my friends to agree to help with this project for the benefit of the students. To participate, you need to do two things: read their posts and leave a comment.

I will be back next week with an update: in the meantime, happy reading!

Justice for all?

This morning I finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  By the time I read the last page, I had cried (more than once), laughed, cursed, and celebrated.

Bryan helped to found EJI in Montgomery, Alabama–Equal Justice Initiative.  In his book, he details the stories of those wrongly accused and/or unjustly incarcerated by a corrupt group of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges.  While most of his book focuses on the South, Alabama in particular, he also tells of similar injustices throughout our country.  We are plagued by a system that unfairly targets the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.  Here is the website: 

As I read account after account, I thought of Charles Dickens and the story of Oliver Twist.  Oliver’s only crime was that he was a poor orphan.  For this he was punished. Of course, not every person convicted of a crime has been wrongly accused.  Not every person who claims to be innocent are truly innocent.  But when I read about a prisoner named Joe who was convicted of a crime HE DID NOT COMMIT at age 13 and sentenced to serve out his time in an adult prison, my heart broke.  Joe’s story must be anomaly, I told myself.  Surely the law works equally for everyone.  I had not realized how naive I was until I read this book.

Don’t judge me too harshly.  It is much easier to believe what we are told than to constantly question it.  But question it we must.  After 18 years for this crime he did not commit, Joe had developed severe health problems.  His life was literally destroyed.  And yet, when Bryan met him, he managed to smile and mustered his hope for a good ending to his nightmarish life.

Bryan also tells of a man in Monroeville, Alabama who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a young woman based entirely on LIES by shady witnesses.  The judge, the prosecutor, and the sheriff in this case were not only negligent but, as far as I can tell, pure evil.  The conspired together for years to convict Walter simply because it was convenient. Motivated by racism and hatred, they put a decent man on death row for over 6 years.  If it had not been for Bryan’s intervention, he would have been electrocuted.  Alabama, as Bryan points out, had at that time one of the highest rates of carrying out the death penalty in the United States.

Monroeville is quite the famous place, known for being the birthplace of Harper Lee and the setting for To Kill A Mockingbird.  The tragic irony of this situation was not lost on Bryan and his colleagues, but unfortunately was completely lost on those involved in Walter’s case.  It made me literally ill to read of this this man’s ordeal.  Walter died from complications due to dementia in 2013, but at least he died a free man.

Bryan Stevenson’s book was a revelation to me.  As I read these stories about the suffering and incredible bravery of those who had been so horribly mistreated I could hardly stand it.  WE MUST CHANGE things in this country.  WE CANNOT allow the status quo to continue.  I write this blog fully aware of the fact that I may seem like a complete fool to some and a latecomer to the party to others.  So be it.  This book has lit a fire under me. This is not the last time I will address this topic.  My students in first year composition will be reading this book in Winter quarter.

I am actively looking for ways to contribute to the alleviation of this outrageous problem. Write to me if you are interested in helping.  As Bryan says, we have work to do.


End of Summer

Fall quarter at the University of Washington is right around the corner, and every faculty member I know is getting ready for the onslaught.  Not to say I’m not brimming with anticipation, mind you.  I just know IT’S COMING: the wall of emails, the endless meetings, the grading, not to mention all of the events on campus that are not to be missed!  By mid-December, 11 weeks will have flown by in a flash; we will catch our collective breath, celebrate our various holidays, and return on January 1st all bright and shiny, ready to gallop through a dark corridor called Winter quarter.  Screeching to a brief halt for a week of Spring Break (hahahahahaha) we will gather ourselves together for the sprint called Spring quarter.  And just like that, we will have all–faculty, staff, and students–successfully (of course) completed another year of learning, teaching, and making the world a better place.

After thirty-five years of college teaching, my mind, body, and spirit are so acclimated to this cycle that it is automatic: August 1st, I begin to prepare myself: if I am teaching a class in autumn I have taught before, I dust it off and make small repairs and incremental improvements.  If it’s a new class, actually, I’ve been planning since June–just not the all-out planning that begins in August.  By this time, two weeks before the quarter, I liken myself to a runner, crouched at the starting line, waiting for the whistle to blow.  “Come on, already,” sums up my attitude.  I. Am. Ready.

On day 1, all is wonderful.  Everyone pays attention.  Everyone (well, most everyone) smiles and asks all of the right questions.  Leaning forward in their chairs, they hang on my every word.  Okay, okay.  I’m pushing it now! Perhaps I am recalling my favorite dream.  Most faculty members might agree that there is a definite honeymoon period before reality sets in.  I would maintain, however, that for me, and probably most of us who have lasted this long, the thrill of teaching and learning never goes away.  It is an honor to be entrusted with the education of such amazing individuals.  I learn something new every day.

And so, the title of this piece, “End of Summer” is not meant to be an ending at all, but a beginning, full of the uncertainty that characterizes our visions of the future, but also overflowing with possibilities.

I. Can’t. Wait.

Last Day of July, 2016

For me, the last day of July marks the beginning of a new academic year.  I begin to think in earnest about the courses I will be teaching in the fall and throughout the year.  I’ve had about 6 weeks “off” (for teachers, there is no such thing as a “free” summer), so it’s time to start gearing up for the new year. It is a time of planning curriculum and of reflecting on what is to come.  It is a time for me to review learning goals for my courses and reconsider the kinds of activities that I will use to engage students in their own learning process.  During the next six weeks, my excitement will build, as it does every year, for that first day of class in a brand new year.  I dream of the possibilities that await myself and my students as we explore new territory together.  The leaves are still green  and hanging on the trees, and my mind is full of fall. Of course, there’s still lots of summer left–my husband and I will make a few more short journeys before the end of August–one to Astoria and one to Ashland for the Shakespeare festival. But it is hard for me to live in the moment completely–the academic calendar has been ingrained in me after teaching for over 30 years!  Its familiar rhythm pulls me in once more and with every day that passes, my anticipation grows.  Bring. It. On!