Tag Archives: change

Word by word, composing myself

I write about 3-4,000 words a week. At least. Some weeks, more than that. How do I do it? Word by word.

And I don’t watch much television.

Most of the time, I don’t worry too much about what I’m saying. I just find the most intriguing thing rolling around in my brain, a puzzle that’s killing me, an idea I can’t tease out by thinking alone, the thing I’m compelled to write about, the irresistible factor that I must understand that is pushing me forward, or what I’m fussing about and… just splat it out on the keyboard: bleh. There it is. Not lovely. Not organized. But it’s out.

Most of the time, this writing is highly unreadable and deeply unattractive. Still. It’s there, and sometimes I can pick from it for other work I need for my life: teaching, essays, smarty-pants-work scenarios (where I need to be the smarty-pants). It’s worth doing even if I never use any of it. The fact that it exists is proof that I’m alive, and furthermore, it’s proof that I’m willing to keep changing (unless I say the same boring thing over and over and over and over and over again). I have a focus of a kind: I love writing and this blog is about me writing and being a writer and making writing happen, but I try to let change infuse who I am and allow me to grow in new and unexpected ways–though growth is uncomfortable sometimes (just like ugly first-draft writing). Writing just flat out makes me grow, damnitall. And then I’m in the middle of changing before I know it. I have a friend who says, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” Right on, sister. I’d like to be far from through, thank you very much.

Most of the time, I just let the writing happen. Most of the time. And even though I do write a lot, sometimes I have to throw things away: e.g., a blog post I started that was about visioneering. I just couldn’t make it work out; I guess it wasn’t meant to be. I love Disneyland, grew up not far from it, visited 1,000+ times, and it says it’s the happiest place on Earth on the sign out front, but the connections I was trying to make between Disney’s imagineers and the visioneers of open educational resources, like Writing Spaces, wasn’t working. The good fight was not staying good. In between the time I started writing that post, and when I had to kill it, I watched RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, learned about the Mouse Liberation Front, and I got tainted, or turned left, or fine-tuned. (Watch this film and learn why the Victorians are everywhere, by the way. And when you do watch this, as you should, be sure to check out the MLF founder, Dan O’Neill, because, ripped from the Wikipedia page for Air Pirates is this possibly life-altering quote from O’Neill for those of us who consistently do stupid things: “‘Doing something stupid once,’ he said, ‘is just plain stupid. Doing something stupid twice is a philosophy.'” Ah. I knew I liked him right away.) I couldn’t keep writing the imagineers/visioneers story–it had to go. I still think Writing Spaces is visioneering done right, but Walt Disney can’t be part of that conversation.

Writing a lot, then, does not mean I’m good at it. It just means I do it a lot. Or doing it more than once might mean I have a philosophy. (I write; therefore, I am. Is that it?) And heaven knows, not all of my writing appears here or is fit to appear here. In fact, most of it doesn’t and isn’t. It’s hard to commit to writing for the public. I worry about typos and heinous errors in syntax and mistakes in fact and graceless moments when I might reveal too much about myself. Sometimes, I write just for me (hard for you to imagine that, isn’t it?) and then come to this space to think in a more accountable way because it is a public location. Still it’s a good place to work out the next level of some idea or thing I’m thinking about–or to compose myself–this is a place that forces me to be true to a writing effort.

Some of my writing is slow and wobbly; I can certainly go to the place where my text is sprinkled with meandering thought bubbles of nuance, similar to the thinking of Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles (1974), Hedley Lamarr, who utters, in an epiphanic moment: “My mind is a-glow with whirling transient nodes of thought, careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.” “Ditto” says his evil henchperson, Taggart (played with glee by Slim Pickens). I am sometimes my own Taggart, too. Ditto, I have told myself after I’ve written something I really like. Why not be my own supporter when I need to? Writers can be so hard on themselves. We should stop that and let the words out and see what happens. Sometimes I write a really fine sentence or paragraph. I need to remember that. Once I had a boss give me a little hug about the waist and tell me, “Sugar, that’s the best damn memo I’ve ever read about sexual harassment and why it’s so wrong.” I live for the ironic. It was a damn good memo.

Despite my willingness to be my own cheerleader in writing, it’s still really hard work. It’s grunt work as much as it is: “Wow, I have something really important to say and this really marvelous way to say it… I’ll just sit down at the computer and the words will simply flow.” Inspiration can come to me but only occasionally. It’s not something I can rely on. Years ago, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and still think it’s one of the best books ever written about getting over the fear of writing and about how it’s vital to just get the writing done, stick-a-fork-in-it-done. If you want to write, own this book. It’s worth having. The title comes from a report on a bunch of birds her brother had to do for school and put off until the last minute. (I’m only vaguely recalling here… be warned.) Their father tells him he must do the work; her brother asks how he will ever get the work done in time; the father replies, “bird by bird.” Bird by bird. That’s the only way.

And she’s funny. Writing advice from someone who’s funny: it’s priceless. Pay whatever it costs to own the book. (Or get see an excerpt on “shitty” first drafts from the WAC Clearinghouse.)

In as much as I can choose inspiration, I have been inspired by that as a writer and as a human: Lamott’s “shitty” first draft concept. I can indeed eat the whole elephant, but I can only eat it one bite at a time. So I write word by word. And sometimes it’s awful. I suppose one way I think is in phrases or clauses and string them together in sentences and sort of arrange those into paragraphs and occasionally link a few paragraphs together with transitions, and hope it all makes sense somehow, but mostly it all comes out in a big whoosh, word by word, stumbling and chaotic, occasionally airy and light. But usually I have to revise to the point that the writing becomes something new again, something fresh, something liquid that moves smoothly (I hope so) on the page or screen and peacefully into the eyes and hearts of readers.

My process is mainly about getting it out, down, away from myself, because any additional thinking I engage in might just muck up the works and keep the ideas in my head where they do no one any good, including me. In this way, writing also works as a way to “compose” or calm my wild, uncharted heart. (“Wild” because I am willing to let “free” rule my very being–it’s not always about being free, though, because free costs a lot sometimes. “Uncharted” because I do believe the world is made for those not cursed with self-awareness, and I am NOT one of them, but I can dream, and I can try to not focus too much on the inward. Ha. Like that’s going to happen to someone who writes a blog about writing and process and myth and the Victorians and Star Wars and open… and baseball. If you hadn’t noticed the Bull Durham (1988) reference, I bring your attention to it now: Annie Savoy about Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh and his gift of being not cursed with self-awareness.)

Focusing then, on the inward, I say, with no irony at all: “writing is definitely an emotional business for me.” Even when I write dry as dust administrative memos or reports–I’m very passionate about how they sound and what to include in just this way or that way to be firm or forgiving or to wheedle or to be just precisely grateful enough for the moment. Hard stuff, man, hard stuff, no matter how or when you write or for what audience. It’s just like Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” At least he didn’t say artery, though I admit, my writing is arterial in so many ways: bleh. There it is: bloody chaos on the page.

It’s not hard getting words down for me, or getting words out; the hardest part is having the discipline to clean it up and make it pretty. I like pretty. Pretty feeds my soul. It nourishes the part of me that needs visual delight to go along with powerful words and language structure. And with practice I can write first drafts sometimes that work for a singular purpose–down and dirty emails, quick notes for teaching, a swift-kick-in-the-shins reminder of work that needs doing. These can be artful moments, too, even without revision. Art for art’s sake; I’m okay with that. Writing for writing’s sake, too. Learning for learning’s sake. I’m down with all the sakes. Even Pete’s. But it needs to mean something, too. A good crafting of prose can be as cleansing for the writer’s soul as sweeping out the cob webs by brain dumping. Revision gets at meaning in deeper ways, richer ways, fancy ball gown for the Academy Awards ways, and winning the Oscar for best original screen play ways.

Some idea must matter and be apparent when it’s over, for a clear message to be conveyed, short or long piece. But composing myself word by word is calming no matter the purpose, the audience, the genre, the length. I feel better for having done some clarity work. Yet, no matter what, I feel horror after it leaves me and goes into someone’s possession to be judged. Despite the stunning dress for the red carpet and the awards show business that I try to bring to a text in the revision process, I still feel naked sometimes. Ick. I want to be adored and told by the editor that despite the lone typo on page 14, “Your text is the best text ever–moved me and transported all our staff to the next realm of divinity toward nirvana, we had to share with accounting, now the CFO is mad in love with you, every one in the world will want to read this work, just as it is, because (we worship you five times a day) this is perfection.” You see how sick writers get in the head when the sweeping out of gunk doesn’t happen. It’s not really just like that; though, I must confess a weakness for CFOs at nonprofit companies, bean counters who care–hard to beat that.

This reaction might come from the damage of having a bad reader more than once. For instance, having a valued friend read what I thought was a masterpiece say: “I liked it, but you have a comma error on page 3.” Nothing else. Or the time I had a boyfriend read a short story that I dreamed was truly fantastic: “I liked it expect for the cussing. That’s not very ladylike.” Crap.

Even now, after years of writing for a variety of people and diverse audiences, friends and foes, employees and supervisors, family and lovers, I cringe a little bit over how, You, Gentle Reader (please be gentle), might find this text: 1) you see this post as almost self-indulgent crap (Bull Durham reference again); 2) you think I’ve been helpful because you suffer from writing fears and have just read Anne Lamott’s “shitty” first drafts and feel oh so much better about writing; 3) you love this post, love the blog, wish I’d write more often.

No matter what the reality is, I’m going with 3).

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Filed under Almost Self-Indulgent Crap, Writing and Identity

“Well… in Who-ville they say…”

One of my favorite books, ever, is How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The best part of that book is:

“Well… in Who-ville they say / That the Grinch’s small heart / Grew three sizes that day.”

Why is this the best part?  Because it means that Christmas wasn’t really stolen after all, that it could never be stolen, not really, not ever. It’s always in our hearts–it’s untouchable. It’s a feeling, not a thing. Feelings can’t be stolen. The Grinch gets that, and it changes him. AND why does that matter? It’s about redemption, resurrection, renewal. It’s moving. It’s about what I keep hoping life is really like. And I’m rarely disappointed. Sure, there is ugliness, but really, isn’t there always something remarkable, too, something that makes us gasp, or wonder, or sigh, or dream? Sydney Carton willingly being executed in place of Charles Darney in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities… Is there a more moving moment than that one in all of literature? Not for me. It’s why I read books. It’s why I love Joseph Campbell and the power of myth. It’s why I can and do watch Star Wars over and over and over again (despite Jar Jar Binks). It’s the thing about being human that is the most amazing to me: our willingness to give to a cause greater than ourselves, our willingness to see a place where we are needed and taking that place, sometimes at a cost to ourselves or who we thought we were. It’s why I like Rhett Butler so much more than Scarlett O’Hara.

As I think about open educational resources (OER) and how that can or should be a part of my life and to what degree, I think the connection between the Grinch and Carton and me is about how hearts, souls, lives are changed by being open to change, to giving, indeed, to forgiveness. (See how give is a part of forgive–how cool is that? How many years did it take for me to see that? A lot.)

I am smitten with the whole notion of OER and higher education. What it all means to me might be best described by the Grinch hearing the Whoville-ites singing Christmas morning though all the accoutrements of the holiday are missing. I have been locked in tight to what I saw as knowledge, the grasping ownership of knowledge, and who gets it and when, and thought that I needed to be defined that way–even though it felt like a dress that looked pretty damn good on me, but one I couldn’t sit down in. Now I’m beginning to think I understand why the whole thing appeals to me: it’s the word open. It makes my heart grow three sizes. It’s transformative. (Not that I’m small-hearted or bent on stealing Christmas or a drunken British attorney madly and sadly in love with a French girl I’ll never have.) If you looked up “open” online, you’d find a lot of possible definitions for it as an adjective–add in its verb meanings, and you’ll find even more.  Well over 80 ways to think about open. My, my.

So is open redemptive? Why not? It’s not closed, or barred, or covered. It allows passage; it’s extended or unfolded; it’s without restriction; it’s accessible and available; it’s unreserved, candid; it’s free of strictures or hazard; it’s unguarded, bounteous, generous, liberal (it can also be undecided and unsettled–isn’t that just perfect?); it’s free; it’s clear; it’s… open. After hundreds of years of higher education being a closed system–here is a chance for it to become an open system. Or parts of it can be open (not everyone needs to be wide open–in fact, there are some folks I might prefer remain enclosed–even if that sounds petty, I’ll have to just be petty). Didn’t the monks lecture to anyone interested, but those who wanted the “degree” had to pay–and got some special attention for the price being paid? What’s different about open and access and knowledge and degrees now? It’s the essence of what college was and what universities became, yes? Open strikes me as very Medieval really. (I get the trouble with such a system–it’s easy to become corrupt when your only income are students who need something and your ability to eat is contingent upon their funding or not–but the open system has its checks and balances–less like hungry monk-teachers and willing, rich noblemen buying degrees for their second sons…)

I especially like the part in which the guts of higher education becomes available to anyone who wants to learn. I taught a course on Victorian literature and science a long time ago–a continuing education class (for which I was paid $46.73 for eight classes–or maybe it was about drugs, sex, and the Victorians?). One of my students was a plumber. He took the class on a whim but fell so in love with the Brownings that he took time off from work to travel to Waco to visit the Armstrong Browning Library. I wonder if he’s thrilled with the open movement, if he’s one of the students of Khan Academy, if he wanders the cyber-halls of MIT. Wouldn’t it be great if he was, if he did? His visit to the ABL still stands out as a monumental part of my teaching history, a triumph not just for me, but for everyone who teaches, yes?

I often have thought I’d like to go back to school to finish my math degree… there’s no way I have time to do this or could even do it now–I lost some basic knowledge along the way to English professorhood. BUT if I wanted to dabble in math at some point, well, I could certainly do that now, couldn’t I? How lovely. I won’t dabble, not even stick a toe in, but I like knowing I could dive in head first at any time without reapplying to school, filling out painful financial aid forms, finding a parking place, getting to the right building, or buying a $200 textbook I’d only read halfway through.

Open also means resurrection. When all else is failing in one’s life, learning can change everything. Jude the Obscure might not be so obscure if he’d had access to higher education in the way it’s being conceived of now by the visioneers of OER. Doesn’t my heart break for him 1,000 times now, more than when I first read Hardy’s sad sad story? It does. And he’s fiction for heaven’s sake. What if my ancestors (whoever they were, I suspect there were horse thieves or cattle rustlers among them) had access to learning modules that were unbounded, unbarred, unfettered by admission standards, tuition, FAFSA, registration prerequisites, and more? Would I have been different because that culture of learning would have inhabited the very essence of my childhood? I was lucky to be raised in a library with reading as a valued activity, but without real knowledge of educational structures that were effectively closed to a majority of my family, I was all over the place. Still am. I know at least my immediate predecessors were prevented from attending college because it was never an option–farmers from North Dakota, immigrants from Germany (bummer to be German for a good part of the 20th century in America), and Irish from someplace very poor where they starved and when they did have money, they probably drank to forget their cares before they emigrated. Education was something I must have, so I was told, but decisions about what that meant were impossible for me to make… and sometimes still feel like that: anthropologist, historian, geographer, Victorianist, writer, dancer, what? The smorgasbord was too huge, so who could make those choices? Steak, or turkey, or fish, veggies, or pasta. How about 20 years of feasting, and I take a little of everything? The benefit to all that is I’ve never been hungry.

I’ve seen higher education resurrect lives, careers, souls. But one’s savvy about how to work the system is part of that resurrection–or at least it has been in my experience as one in and of the system, so far. Open means something different is possible now. MERLOT, Connexions, MIT are a few of the places one can find open educational resources–and there are so many more folks making open happen (Open University is a long time love of mine–I met folks in England a few years ago who teach for OU–it was wondrous to hear them talk about their students who lived, literally, everywhere… it’s less open than you think: you have to pay a price for admission, but admission is not based on test scores or grades or even really age). In some ways, you have to hunt for what you want in some of these open places, but I see how that could be evolving, too. (I mean, have you seen page one of MERLOT? I was sure I needed a degree of some kind in order to even begin deciphering the contents–overwhelming, to say the least.  And the crawl thing at the top… do we really need that sort of thing? Google really understands me–clean, easy, simple, doesn’t hurt me to look at it–sometimes, it’s even fun.)

So open is good. I want open. I’m dancing with open in Writing Spaces. And it’s a fine dance. It’s about writing. I love writing. I love doing it. For me, for you, for friends, for family, for colleagues, for students. It’s easy, it’s beautiful, it’s all kinds of open for me. It’s without boundary. It’s the light I need for my own photosynthesis. It’s the ultimate dance. But here’s the thing: Writing Spaces is NOT all over the place. The music is defined; it’s writing music, but the dance I do isn’t defined entirely. The content is about writing, but who doesn’t DO writing? I can’t really think about a life that wouldn’t be enhanced by writing. Mine certainly is. Even in aviation, I defined myself by writing and publishing in aviation journals. In extended education, I defined myself by writing and publishing about life-long learning. I haven’t always loved the scholarly path–I have really lived the journalist’s life, writing when and where I felt like it. And though I have fallen out of love with many things–politics, law, numbers (and even people)–I’ve never fallen out of love with writing. Never.

It saves me, it redeems me, it resurrects me, it sustains me. When I need to think, I write, and when I do, my heart grows three sizes. Maybe that’s because I can write because it’s utterly who I am. Utterly. I am the words I write. If that’s not one possible definition of open, what is?

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Filed under Magic and Writing

Administration: ministration + ad

Done right, ministration + ad can be a good thing. For instance, managing anything is about ministering to the thing’s needs–a program, department, firm, group, teachers, students–whatever/whoever. And marketing is just part of that–every management job must advertise its point–or at the least, managers must relate their worth to those they work for and with. Ministration + ad. Or as Henry Laurence Gantt, A.B., M.E. (1861-1919) said in 1915, “Under autocratic rule the man in authority is a master; under democratic rule he is a servant” (Industrial Leadership 19).

(Benito Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but he went too far with the “Il Duce” thing–and he was rising to power at the time Gantt was talking/writing–not autocratic power, but it was coming, coming, coming.)

Gantt’s assessment of what’s up with leadership is best understood, then, in its context: right at the start of WWI and the rise of global war, fascism, and flu (well, that would come in time)–just to name a few urgencies of the early 20th century. He purposely equates great industrial leadership to military leadership and explicitly links the adage “you can catch more flies with honey” to important changes in leadership and industry.  (That’s a lot to just throw out there in an opening–but please come along for the ride, we’ll get it all “managed” as we go–sort of. I should make a chart of this post.)

I’ve just been re-reading some texts by Gantt, Industrial Leadership (1915) quoted above and Work, Wages, & Profits (1913) for a couple of reasons: 1) to remember why I love him as I need to create two Gantt charts for consulting projects I have this spring; and 2) because I’m writing a chapter about project management for freshman college writers for Writing Spaces, Vol. 3 that is due to editors on Jan. 10, 2011. Gantt charts are something I teach my freshman writers whenever I can (in fact, I teach it to anyone who is open to it because I manage my personal and professional life visually, with charts–once a VP of a publishing company I worked for called me the “Queen of Charts”–not an insult as the title was accompanied by a tiara with flashing lights which I wore in more than one meeting). I do generally avoid this much history and rambling around when I just use the chart for PM in real life–but there is something so fine about the freedom of a blog and just getting ideas out there–TBAFL (to be accountable for later).

(I first “met” Gantt years and years ago when I worked with pilots who’d been trained by various military groups [Army, Air Force, Navy]–they used something akin to Gantt charts to manage massive projects that were part of government fire-fighting contracts. I remotely dealt with aspects of this work [though occasionally visited our contract sites]–we had contracts all over the western U.S. It was occasionally a nightmare during fire season to figure out where everyone was and what was going on, but the pilots were quiet and peaceful and efficient. Everything I might expect from men of war and peace. And ideas of management rubbed off.)

So I have to acknowledge that Gantt was an industrial snob on some level, but c’mon, we’re talking 19th century, early 20th century industrial revolution here. He was a Victorian, but he was American (and a teacher for awhile–I like that)… and frankly, despite perceived stuffiness, he was a revolutionary. I especially like a series of addresses he gave to the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University as part of the Page Lecture Series in 1915, published by Yale UP (you could buy the book and have it delivered for $1 back then). The quote about autocracy vs. democracy above comes from his lecture.  He had two other books, though, that both rocked (see later on–all are available through Google Books). He is not the industrialist’s minion–not at all. He suggests that robber baron industrialism was over and that it could not happen again, if we valued a healthy economy that included efficient manner of production. Wonder what he would think about our most recent digital-intellectual-industrial revolution at the turn of this most recent century? I think he’d be deep in the weeds of web 2.o creating visual and graphic interactive designs/charts and more to change the way we work, manage, think, collaborate, progress. (I think he’d give Edward Tufte a run for his money, too.)

But wait…

Some background before I get too deep (I already got too deep, didn’t I?)…

H.L. Gantt is most famous for his invention of a graphic way of representing project management (PM), work flow, work process, and performance, called, and rightly so, the Gantt Chart.

Sample chart from *Work, Wages & Profits* (1913)

It’s commonly used in project management still (I love them and use them all the time). There have been variations over the years (PERT is one–created and honed by the U.S. Navy), but I haven’t needed to vary my PM style because Henry’s ideas still work for me (I have smaller projects now than I used to–no need to change). As an engineer, he saw the need to clarify the procedures of the work, who did what and when, and he did that–visually, so everyone could “see” what was going on at any moment. Perhaps it’s the mechanical engineering part of him that “saw” the design of project management as a schematic for how to make a “machine” more efficient. But he far from dehumanizes the worker or manager–his goal was to ensure labor was valued as human work, not mindless, soulless endeavor–indeed, the need to change how work was managed was an underpinning of his Gantt Chart. Humans should not be wasted through thoughtless management principles, but should be valued and paid appropriately with bonus structures for great performance (there are issues with this as motivational theory goes, but that’s another entry–or check out this Ted.com talk by Dan Pink).

Nice aside: if you search for Gantt much on the internet, you’ll quickly learn that his chart was used to manage the Hoover Dam project as well as Eisenhower’s massive interstate highway construction extravaganza. That’s some cred. (Lovely serendipitous moment brought to you by this aside: I’ll be standing on Hoover Dam next Monday, 12/27 with friends who will be married the next day in an Elvis-Blue-Hawaii wedding ceremony officiated by an Elvis-impersonator minister. Elvis also visited the Dam. Of course, he did.)

My ideas: management must be kind and serve the needs of the managed (without sacrificing the needs of the larger programmatic goals)–how does one do that? Talking to everyone, valuing facts and expert opinions, figuring out how to proceed, produce, and perform–and most importantly, helping others do the same. And keeping track of where everyone and everything is at–without a management team that includes more folks than those doing the work. Gantt’s ideas: 1) manage people not machines; 2) value worker prowess; 3) in all things, efficiency and accountability.

Administration: ministration + ad.  If you ministrate properly, the ad takes care of itself… maybe. Is goodwill the same as good intention when it comes to administration? Perhaps not, but it can’t hurt to think about the past when managing the now or the future and know that ministering a thing is wrapped in making sure everyone knows what to do, when to do it, so they can bring maximum creativity and innovation to each part of the production.

Gantt might have agreed. He was a visionary and despite almost a hundred years between his death and now–I find him relevant and inspiring: Wages, Work & Profits (1913), Industrial Leadership (1915), Organizing for Work (1919).

Students can use Gantt’s PM ideas for better handling themselves in the industry that is higher education–understanding how the administrative structure works, who does what, why, and how they fit in–in fact, how they can be productively part of the machine (as offensive as that sounds, working within the system can be important to: understanding the system and then, eventually, bringing down the system–if there’s anything I’ve learned from the Victorians, it is that mastery can and should lead to revolution and evolution). AND, key to a modern student’s survival through college, can be a Gantt Chart for writing projects or degree plans, and even post-college life management. If education is the goal, a PM chart is less necessary–still a fine idea, but if a degree is the goal, and maximum efficiency, get on board with a Gantt Chart.

I always scored high on the visual/spatial/mechanical parts of those truly horrific standardized tests which exist to pigeon-hole and track the past and which can never predict potential. I was also required in high school and in my college years to take one of those career tests: perhaps it makes total sense that the two top choices for my possible careers were railroad engineering and the clergy.

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Filed under Interdisciplinariness

Industrial Light and Magic at 35… and writing studies

As I watch a 35-year anniversary documentary about Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), I have begun thinking about the ways writing studies has changed in the same amount of time… or nearly so.

I’m thinking specifically about my life in this time, my writing, my education in literature and composition/rhetoric (better named writing studies?).  I was just called the “queen of change” on Facebook a week or so ago because I’m been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” a lot and creating a playlist for Darwin because I’m teaching Darwin this semester (who doesn’t love Darwin and his big change?  Don’t ask.).  I embrace change because it’s poetic.  It’s life.  It’s my life.  It’s a way to live.  But change is very hard for many people.  Extremely hard.  Scary.  Still it can be incredible.

Many of the ILM folks in the documentary talk about the change that happened because of ILM’s innovations and the difficulty they encountered over the years in changing–they pushed hard to innovate and create opportunities for others to change and see the world differently.  Artists were reluctant to embrace the new computer generated art/characters/etc.  When one artist moved from the art department to the computer department, it was said she “went to the dark side of the force.” (Okay, settle in, it’s a long parenthetical: the documentary is a love letter from ILM to ILM, so I get that, but it’s not wrong–ILM has done amazing work–and do you know Edutopia?  A George Lucas-funded online resource for K-12 teachers.  I visited for years when I was designing curriculum for K-12.  I have been reading Owen Edwards for ages–a great writer/editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian–I like his work for both.  How does that happen?  A writer for Edutopia and Smithsonian?  His piece on making hot chocolate in Mexico was stirring in the Smithsonian.)

ILM changed my life as it did for many others–who hasn’t been affected in some way by Star WarsIndiana Jones and ____?  Transformers?  (Not the second Transformers.)  I still make references to these films and watch them with my son and students.  And the latest Star Trek?  It made me want to teach Star Trek and argument: race, class, gender.  And it was just what I wanted it to be: stunning.  I’m a creature of my generation and my generation is a visual one and my students loved the reading about writing, the thinking about the visual, and watching movies and episodes of Star Trek.  And my generation grew up on ILM.

(Are you still musing over the link between ILM/George Lucas/Lucas Films, Ltd. and an education online resource as great as Edutopia?  I am.  I always am.)

So in these past 35 years what sorts of changes have occurred in English?  Teaching writing in writing classes rather than teaching literature in writing classes.  Whole degrees in writing.  Master’s and PhD’s in writing.  This change is still frightening for some.  But like the ILM artists who feared CGI, but converted, or actors who feared blue/green screens, but managed to perform, so have many moved from literature to writing and many now can embrace the discipline of writing on its own.  But disciplinary change is not new.  Remember back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century when ALL kinds of educated folk were up in arms over the ghastly change from classic Greek/Latin education in universities to a more practical education in vernacular…even, hush your mouth, studying modern literature?  It was revolutionary, roguish, daring. And women allowed in higher education, too.  Good heavens.  It wasn’t all that long ago.  Neither was allowing women to vote.  My grandmother was among the first women to vote in this country.

How hard was it for English literature professors to find validation from classics professors?  I wonder, but I wouldn’t be surprised at answers that included: hard, damn hard, impossible.

So change is hard.  And though lots of folks have moved from teaching writing about literature to teaching writing, not everyone has taken that trek.  Change theory is, perhaps, applicable here, especially as we are now, and for the last score of years, undergoing another change in thinking facilitated by the googleverse.  There are a number of theories to help us think about how change happens in communities, organizations, institutions.  Mostly the ones I know are social theorists, human performance improvement gurus, and instructional systems designer types.  But could such theories bring some peace to change within a discipline?  Sure.  Why not?  Kurt Lewin is a good place to start (that’s right, a Victorian, at least by birth); there could be worse places to start, but I like the historical, chronological, 20th-century sweeping approach to learning.

Back to the initial thinking: is writing studies/composition/rhetoric part of a big ol’ change in how the world goes round?  Like ILM is to special effects?  Sort of.  We do ask the world to see things in a different way than they have ever seen things before?  We say writing is worthy of study.  We ask people to understand it’s a field, a discipline, and they do.  Mostly.

Specifically, I think it’s the magic part that equates what we do as writing professionals in writing studies to the pros at ILM.  Hard work=magic in my experience.  ILM gurus break down the hardest possible tasks into the smallest possible pieces so that they can manage a system to create something complex and meaningful that we can all see.  We do that, too.  We demystify writing, break it down into smaller pieces so something complex and meaningful can be created… that we all can see. We ask students to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.

ILM gives us the ability to believe what we see–that is the magic they do.  We give students the ability to believe they have the skills to write or can acquire them.  It’s a kind of magic.

Change is hard; no one wants to do it; but when it’s done right, it’s magic; with open educational resources becoming a bigger player on the college scene, the magic is spreading.  Are we wizards?  Writing Spaces…like magic.  Maybe we are a little bit wizardly.  But we are definitely the people behind the curtain, too, showing students how they can make their own magic happen.

And may I say: what a fine documentary.  What a lovely way to spend an hour.  What a nice moment of joy and inspiration.  What a grand connection between special effects and writing.  Lucky me.  Watch whenever you can as often as you can.  I liked it so much I forgot Tom Cruise was the narrator.

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The National Day on Writing…

“The” National Day on Writing… as if there should only be one.  I’m always going to celebrate this day as if my life depended on it (and secretly every day of the year).  It’s a day perfectly made for me (though I’m sure Congress and the originators of the whole thing never considered my needs for a hot second).

Tomorrow is the big day.  This year I’m honored to celebrate the day with a former TCU student visiting AUM to talk about his writing, his music, how he works, and what it means to share words with the world.  My former TCU student.  (The lyrics of a song he recently wrote for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and TCU Frogs for the Cure contain the words of breast cancer survivors–that’s one way to share words.  Watch this video, all of it, and then go buy his song on iTunes.  If you don’t buy much music on iTunes, make an exception because you need to own this one song to help find a cure.)

He’s doing amazing things with music and writing.  I can’t believe I’ve got a former student who is doing such beautiful things with his life, or that I actually know what’s up with him.  Normally, I’ve got a lot of rabbit in me.  I’ve rarely lived or worked in one place for long.  I haven’t much seen my students again after I’ve taught for a term, a year, whatever.  Aunt Marianna nailed it when she said I was naturally discontent.  Not unhappy–just always yearning.  I distinctly remember her telling me when I was 15 years old, “Honey, you’ll struggle because of your natural discontent, but it’s also a gift.  Find the right use for the gift.”  (By the way, who says that to a 15-year old?)

Now I get it.

So Tim Halperin is making a difference in the world.  I’m proud of him–as if I had much to do with it–but whatever part I played for a semester, it is something that makes a difference… to me.  I often wonder if I matter.  Do my actions help anyone?  Do I say things that make people joyful?  Do I create an environment around me that gives people a chance to grow?  He says I did that.  Thank you, Tim.

He’s come to perform at my university for AUM Writes! Day.  We started a day of celebration last year, because I’m big on days that celebrate literacy. When I slaved for a publisher sometime in the mid-2000s, I celebrated International Literacy Day by begging the vice president, fellow employees, and a book distributor to find a way to give 1,400 books to a local elementary school.  We did it.  On International Literacy day that year, trucks and people rolled up to a little K-5 school outside Dallas and each student in the school got to pick out a book to keep and the rest, 750 books, were donated to the school library.  I thought that might have been one of the best moments of my life.  Only one of the best as it turns out.

Now I work for an education experience provider–a university.  We have a lot less money than publishers, but I really dig the freedom and what money we have is mostly well spent.  Would I rather have a talented musician talking to students about his writing process or a new rug?  No contest.

Talking with Tim, I realized how lucky I was as I said aloud how lucky I was.  Or perhaps, it’s just a kind of fate.  I seem to have operated my life like a boat: I point my boat in a direction I think I want to go and then hope some current will move me along where I’m supposed to go.  Occasionally someone climbs aboard and sticks an oar in the water and moves me around.  Sometimes a bigger boat crashes into me, and I really move around.  Fate got us both back into conversation–in a fashion much calmer than a mid-sea collision.

Tim was a great student–a terrific writer who seriously worked the process and created smooth, easy-to-read prose.  I almost always tell students that the best papers are ones that don’t trip me up as a reader.  I am first a reader who wants to know something that they think is important to say.  If I stumble because I can’t understand, then I get all wrapped up in what I assigned.  I’d much rather just read than assess.  The gap between my reading pleasure and student writing is the teaching zone when I need to assess and guide.  Sometimes I’m good at finding what a writer needs to learn in order to improve.  At least I get my own motivations now and what purpose I might serve in the world.

I don’t remember all the work Tim created, but I remember it was easy to read and thoughtful.  One of his papers, though, was really fine; a profile on a musician/minister was visually well done (lots of green and photos of performances).  He was a breeze to teach: just did everything I said, was creative, thoughtful, and on time.  He was the first student I ever taught who invited me to an outside school event–an evening of his music at a coffee house (his then-girlfriend was in another class I was teaching).  I was delighted and entertained, and thought: he’s got it.  I also thought: 1) I hope he knows he has a gift; 2) I hope he finds joy in this gift always; 3) I hope he stays off drugs, then I bought four of his CDs and headed home to move away.

Of course, I lost track.  I moved away.  But I accidentally saw him graduate last year.  I went to see a long-time friend graduate from TCU (Maria who thinks I’m a ninja), and there he was.  We connected via email/Facebook later and got to talking about how I’d like to use his videos to teach project management and writing process.  One thing led to another (as so often happens when one chooses to live one’s life as an oarless boat); I got funding to bring him to the AUM campus to share his music and writing with my community.

Reconnecting meant I got to relive some of the most pleasant memories from that year.  I had been out of teaching for a long time when I started teaching his class: 8 am MWF in Aug. 2007, the first time I’d taught since the fall semester of 2000 when I’d been pregnant and working full-time for a publisher.  Not a brilliant move altogether, but there it was.  I’d committed to the department and to an elementary school partnership as well as to two dear friends who co-taught with me in a highly experimental three-teacher scenario while providing community-service credits to two high school students.  How did we think we could do it all?  We were full of ourselves and lucky (though, I will remind you, luck don’t go looking for no stumblebums).  We managed to do it.  I remember being engaged in that class and so full from the promise of the young people around me.  And yet I was exhausted.  That was it.  I couldn’t teach one more class ever again.  I knew it.  After the final exam, I remember crying because I knew I’d lost something, but I didn’t know what.  I walked home from that last class, two blocks was all, tears just streaming and steaming.  Christmas 2000 sucked.

Wait.  What happened to the pleasant moments I promised you?  Sorry.  Here they are:

My next walk on campus, seven years later, brought me back into the classroom–Aug. 2007.  (Much better, right?  On track and no tears.)  I was once again, employed full-time by a publisher, and had agreed to teach for the English Dept. at TCU (bless them always for the good they did me for so many years).  I remember thinking, hell, I can’t actually harm the students and maybe will do some good.  At the end of Ball Four (perhaps the single most personally influential book I’ve ever read, ever, ever, ever), Jim Bouton wrote about baseball, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  The thing that gripped me was teaching.  I just didn’t know it until I taught Tim’s class.  Each class I taught that day confirmed it.  I was finally in a place I was supposed to be.  From that day on, I knew I should be teaching, not publishing. (Though I haven’t exactly stopped wrangling around with publishers, it’s not the major focus of my life or employment anymore, esp. as I push back from entirely feeding at the table of corporate publishing excess and am working on a project that feels right and open because it is both of those things and more: Writing Spaces.  If I knew how to create footnotes in a blog, I’d have inserted one at the end of that last sentence speculating on whether I could legitimately mention Writing Spaces every time I created an entry in this blog no matter how I started out or what the general topic might be.  Bet on it.)

The end of that first day back in the classroom, I joined MLA so I could embark upon a traditional academic job search that fall.  And here I am celebrating The National Day on Writing for the second time, at an event that means so much to me, AUM Writes!, with my current students, colleagues, friends, and one former writing student who rocks, literally.  Fate.  Luck.  Yearning.  Or something else?  Discontent.  Who cares?

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Goosebumps and textbooks…

I do love my job. Almost all the time, but sometimes, I can say I LOVE my job. This last weekend, I LOVED my job. I spent a good amount of time around a lot of writing instructors who teach basic writing (one of the loves of my life that never seems to get old). Most were unhappy with textbooks in general. They did their own instructional thing with students, creating work that moved and transformed their students from struggling with sentences to composing essays. (This will come up again…)

We talked a lot about the future of textbook publishing and found that while we all loved books, we all believed to some extent, that the future would be full of e-books, many of them free and easily obtained by students on various e-devices from phones to readers to pads to _______. We also discussed the fact that we knew what worked with our students and it often wasn’t or couldn’t be put into one book.  If  we used a book, we never used all of it, and if we only used 30-60% of a $75 book, why were we using it again? Some of us are forced to use books by a program that dictates book use (I’m in one of those, and I’m the dictator–long story–won’t always be that, but it is now); some of us have to use books by certain publishers because that’s the campus system; some of us get to teach with our own materials. And there was not one among our group that wasn’t willing to give away every bit of their stuff.  Not one.

Point one: I would like to be textbook free. I’d love to have a handbook to teach from and with and some readings online that students could get and read anytime on anything. Oh wait. I already have that: Writing Spaces. But for such a move, I need to not be accountable for 40 other teachers and what they do. I need to know that everyone, no matter what they are doing, are moving toward common outcomes. I don’t know that yet. So I’m trying to staunch the flow of blood, congeal what we do, (and I say that deliberately though it sounds really raw) at the site of a wound left by the past. One day I want no textbooks and no handbooks. I want to be among student writers who can, like ninjas, move from their own text to many books and back, with me or without me, f2f or otherwise. And I’m not alone.

Point two: no teacher I’ve ever met, who really loves to teach, is selfish. A lot of scholars are, however, reluctant to share. There is a lot riding on tenure and promotion: all one’s life, it may seem (or may be). So making a model of how one can share and get T&P credit for it is important. Charlie Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, editors of Writing Spaces, are making this model all the way live. A peer-reviewed collection of essays on writing, on the practice of writing, on the theories of writing… wait for it… for students. Why did all these teachers create materials for their own students? Because it matters. Why does a book like Writing Spaces exist? Because it does the same thing–it matters. It has the potential to re-create everything about a writing class–just like an individual teacher can.

Point 3: Lucky me. I get to be a small part of this. It feeds the part of me that was desperate to skip college and join the Peace Corps. It feeds the part of me who was a basic writer in college with no hope of graduating because I never learned anything about writing in school (though I read a lot–that ultimately was my salvation–and the writing center at Boise State Univ.). It feeds the part of me who is now a writing program administrator who is also the only tenure-track comp/rhet professor and the department Victorianist and often spread thin like too little butter over a huge piece of toast (no need to raise your eyebrows, I know it’s a crazy job)–because I want writing to be the subject of the writing classes at my university, in the writing program I’m supposed to be directing. Writing is a worthy subject, not just writing to learn or learning to write, but learning about writing. THIS project fixes what was wrong for me: lack of access to materials about writing written by writing instructors for writing students… and free. (The Subject is Writing (4th ed.) by Wendy Bishop and James Strickland is nice, but it’s not free.)

Point 4: I take back the handbook thing. I want no heavy, thin-paged, over-tabbed, overpriced books of any kind in my classroom. I want writing happening all the time with access to texts as needed, however needed, when needed and in various forms: audio, video, plain ol’ unburnished text. I won’t ever be anti-physical-book because I’m in love with books, but teaching with them–not necessary.

Point 5: I’m well aware that my colleagues may only value my publishing as it appears in book form, in traditional academic journals, etc. But what I know is that I can work successfully in a range of fields and have. I have no fear. In fact, it was that which moved me back to the academy. I was told once that I was a change agent. I was being insulted, but I took it as a compliment (and a complement)–and hold that accusation dear to my heart. I may be of the 20th century, I may value work in archives and the recovery of history (and do that work with great joy), I may be a Victorianist, I may be a director of composition, I may teach a billion things and nothing at all, but I am also of the 21st century and embracing all the time all that can be. Perhaps it was Gene Roddenberry who turned me to the future or Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein… maybe even the art of Chesley Bonestell. I’m not sure and don’t care because what I know is that being deep in the history of ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t invent a future different from our past. And if I need to, I’ll go back to publishing if I need food, clothing, and shelter because I’m an editor. Words will always matter in my lifetime. And I can play with them and make them shiny. The world needs me (and I know this will sound awful), the academy needs me, but I don’t have to need the academy (I mean, I need it desperately, in an emotional way–not financially). (More clarification, as if this will help: I want to teach, so that’s why I’m where I am–my friend, Maria, says I’m a ninja editor, and being such can suck unless you educate the next generation–in fact, I think you can lose your ninja card if you don’t teach.)

Point 6: The future must be free to everyone–all books all the time all to everyone (go Google Books and copyleftists everywhere now that I know you exist.) Remember public libraries–all books all the time all to everyone? This is the same thing, but easier. And writing teachers who share and give and give and create and give some more–they all know this. And that is exactly why I got goosebumps this weekend talking about the future of textbooks. The word “textbook” itself is terribly powerful to me and scary: not just book, but text, too, and that includes the connotation of megalomaniac control-freak massive textbook publishers taking over the world. A compound word that meant one thing in the last two centuries and yet can mean another thing now and as we move along to the 22nd century.

Point 7: Writing Spaces is a new kind of textbook–it’s an text-unbook. An un-textbook. It’s not the only open educational resource around, but it’s peer-reviewed and still free, and that may make the difference for those who work on it and publish in it. It’s also supported by a good press (Parlor Press)–a good press run by good people. Writing teachers can keep on creating and giving–but now they might get institutional credit for it. I’m emailing everyone I met this weekend with the link to WS. They’ll love it and be as surprised and pleased as I was when I was introduced to this project. I scoured the web site for the strings, the catch… no strings, no catch. This book already belongs to everyone.  Welcome to this century… maybe the next one.

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