Tag Archives: learning

Oh no. I really did that, didn’t I?

I have being doing some things in my blog that might bother the web savvy. I’ll get to the details soon, but number one is that I don’t really care if anybody reads this. It’s for me. It’s my place to think and write when I need to get writing handled and get it out of my head and in a place that I can’t take back. It’s too easy as a writer to do a lot of writing and never share it for a variety of reasons. My issue is that I have to get the thinking out of my head, and I never did a really super fantastic good job of that before this blog. I tend to let ideas grow, but sometimes I will let them fester when I don’t do anything with them. (Such an ugly word but one that exactly explains what ideas do when they are left to rot in a mind. Okay, in my mind.)

Because the audience is me, I also haven’t done anything to promote the site, share with others, tell anyone it exists, get it on Reddit or Digg, or follow other blogs and get into the blogosphere (a relatively new word to my vocabulary) by developing relationships with other bloggers. You’ll notice my blogroll totals one other web site–it’s not even a blog. For now, I’m okay with that. But if I want to change my blogging experience, I know how. Here’s why…

I’m a participant in the ongoing creation and life of a really great open educational resource, Writing Spaces. And the folks at Writing Spaces are just about to bring to the world a terrific style guide on writing for the web. It was started by Charlie Lowe and Michael Day as a collaborative project for the Computers & Writing conference… well, it was part of an unconference associated with that conference. A writing sprint is really what it was, like a code sprint where open source software programmers/coders get together to make a bunch of code everyone needs. (Like I even knew what that meant before this unconference, but it sounds like it could be fun.)

So this sprint happened: a lot of writing professors and teachers and designers and web gurus and writers got together to write this guide over a few weeks. I dipped into it occasionally to see how the writing was going because I didn’t have much to say on the topic. I write like a writer for print, not a writer for the web. I write long blog posts (1200-2000+ words); I have all my links open into new windows (I really like that as a web user); I don’t mess around with code (or I didn’t until I read the guide–more on this later); I don’t tweak my own site much (though I took time off from being here in April and just now changed the template and included my art in the header–inspired by the guide). In truth, I do a lot of un-savvy things for a writer on the web. (Perhaps this makes me charming rather than annoying. Wouldn’t that be great? I can dream.)

The editors, Matt Barton, Jim Kalmbach, and Charlie Lowe, have done a really great job of managing to bring together a lot of writing by a lot of people: 16 people wrote this work. In not a lot of time. They had general categories they developed, then they all pitched in and wrote what they knew, what worked for them, what they taught their students, what they consulted with clients about, what was right and good. They live in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, California, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and more. Some were at the conference in Ann Arbor, MI, but some couldn’t make it. Regardless, the writing mostly happened before the actual conference; the editing (a lot of work–and getting it all pretty for the web site must have taken hours) and copy editing (not so hard because the editors did so much) came after the conference. Very cool thing. I’ve been part of the commons, but not in something like this before.

At the first C&W conference I attended last year at Purdue, I decided I wanted to become more hip to the world of the web, so I committed to being open even before I was truly open and decided I’d let myself learn about all things online in any ways I could. I even graduated from a faculty development program at my school in teaching online last year (how on earth did I work that into my schedule?). But I just didn’t work much on understanding how words and space worked on the web. As I read through the finished text to copy edit, I did three things: 1) prayed to the web gods that I didn’t make any mistakes that would make my colleagues look bad; 2) desperately hoped that I would not do something awful to the code (because I don’t have many code skills… yet); and 3) marveled at everything I was learning. I took about twice as long to copy edit as I normally would have because I kept reading and getting distracted by links to sites I would browse around in and end up reading for awhile!

When this thing gets published later this week, I’ll put the link in here (on the word “here,” actually). But until then, let me say this: WOW! I know the difference between HTML and CSS. I created a web page and fooled around with CSS, too. I re-learned about content strategy and did these things: read a blog post by Steve Krause; played with an online color tool; thought deeply about how I wanted to use the guide in my summer WAC (writing across the curriculum) class; realized the web was more than the Encyclopedia of Arda and the few places I visit regularly. And I also learned these things: that I shouldn’t have my links open into new windows; that my posts should be shorter; that animated GIFs are no longer cool (thank goodness I never dreamed of doing that); that I should really get into Twitter (obviously, I could practice concision–something I really don’t do much of or very well); that one of the contributors likes Star Trek (“Damnit Jim” in a section title); that I should embed video in my site rather than link to it; that I should be kind to my readers with appropriate design; that I can do a lot more on the web and in this blog than I imagined.

Will I change my troubling ways because of this work? Not everything, not all at once, but I’m stunned to find that this post will be very close to 1,200 words, on the shortish side for me. I still made all my links open to new windows. (Perhaps that makes me a lovely but determined writer in transition rather than an obnoxious, stubborn Luddite. Okay, I’ll never do it in any other place than this blog. Fine.)

And to think, up until a few days ago, I was happy to write somewhere that was more accountable than my own desktop or a paper journal. I never have a pen when I need one anyway.

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Filed under Open Educational Resources, Open Everything, Open All the Time

The open WPA: Dancing around in open land

WPA is not an acronym for Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration)–which some folks have suggested when I casually mention, at fancy dress-up cocktail parties, that I’m a WPA. WPA means Writing Program Administrator. But I can understand the confusion. WPAs often do a lot of progressive work (and projects from now until the 12th of forever), things that mean forward movement, going places, building programs, and such.

Though FDR’s WPA is an fairly old entity that was part of the New Deal, I’m okay with the comparison. The work the WPA did was needed and good (millions of Americans found work through that agency for eight years from 1935-1943), and benefited, I’m sure, my own antecedents. So. I’m not at all offended by anyone thinking I might be affiliated with such an important movement/agency/group/organization, though I do usually end up explaining what my WPAness means. Sometimes I just say I’m a writer. It’s easier than saying I’m a WPA and a lot less stressful than saying I’m an English teacher (so many people look aghast, and breathlessly say, as they back away from me, that they were awful in English: “Oh, look there’s Sam and Lena, I really must go say hello, excuse me, won’t you?” To Sam and Lena: “Ugh, Elizabeth teaches English–stay away–or least don’t say something stupid.”). Saying I’m an English professor is worse, and a Victorian literature professor, why, that’s even more catastrophic, I’m sad to say. The Victorians were sort of judge-y.

However, my point in this post is not about how hard it is to say what my professional life is or isn’t. My point is to write about how I’ve gotten to be such an open person, specifically an open writing program administrator. To be perfectly honest, it’s a thing that bleeds into my personal life in more than one way. I don’t think I could be an open person at work and then be closed at home. I had to re-think my own existence, to be slightly dramatic about it, and all that might mean in the last year. I’ve become open to new things, new ways of working, new friends, new sights, new sites, new language, new everything and open everything. Lately, since August last year actually, I’ve been engaged with what feels like very progressive projects by embracing all things open. I’ve read several books about open (with a few more to go), hefty articles (from law review journals even), light and fun articles (in some casual blogs and magazines), serious work from rhetoric and composition scholars (in academic journals in print and online and in blogs)–all about open things.

What baffles me most about this reading is that I lived parallel to the history I’m reading about now. I’m not really riveted by 20th/21st century history or events. Usually I read 19th century history/literature and that feeds my Victorian literature teaching, or I read happening-right-now works on teaching writing. The whole open thing was going on while I was an adult, and I never really learned much about it while it was happening. But I have friends now who were IN it. I had friends who were in it then, but I had no idea what they were talking about while they were talking about it. In the 1990s I was doing something very different with my life than the open advocates. Which is all to say: it was as it should be. No regrets. If I’d gotten it then, I’d be a different person than I am now–and that wouldn’t be good. I’m good just how I am. Right. Now.

But I’m deeply profoundly madly serious when I say: right now, open is the thing that will make me happy for a long time to come. I do cycle through intellectual and physical fads some (in 2009/10, I read every Michael Chabon book; I took karate classes like I was the next Bruce Lee until I had to hit people and mean it), but open is, as I explore it more, an undercurrent running with the river of my life, not against it. It’s always been there, I just never called it what it is.

I used to joke about being a scholar of liberation studies because everything I read or did with my mind was always about freedom–mine, specifically, but if I could support anyone else’s freedom, I was on board with that, too. I felt like the one thing I could do, and do well, was read, and persuade others of the wonder of reading, and that the one thing no one could ever take from me was what I learned, and that learning should always be liberatory (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?). I was completely drawn to writers who were politically aware and somehow actively trying to change the world: Byron, Shelley, Barrett Browning, Dickens, Gaskell. In the 20th century, the one genre I was driven to read was spy fiction–all about spies who worked for governments who sought freedoms for its people. Sure, there was betrayal, but it was so scintillating and scrumptious when the good spies won (they didn’t always).

Occasionally, in the 20th century, I’d be hooked into other genres: I started reading Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent series when I was in 7th grade and finished when he finished (a great series that mirrors a lot of political change from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). I cared about the way politics worked and how freedoms mattered to a people and how a people might give a lot to ensure freedom for all, risking life and limb in battles here and over there. (“Over There” is a song my grandmother, Blanche Kennedy, used to sing to me when I was little–she used to also sing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”; I think my early interest in geography is explained by my grandfather’s involvement in WWI, his globe with little x’s on each country he’d been in, and my grandmother’s singing to me the songs of the Great War). My life was surrounded by the political. Home life was infused by the political; voting was one of the biggest events of each year; every man in my family, and some women, served in a branch of the military until my generation.

And OER is political. I want to extricate myself from political things these days, mostly, but this isn’t one I can ignore. The underlying freedom from cost to students and other teachers inherent in OER means something to those in poverty. Education is liberation. Free textbooks (online) or books published inexpensively to meet local needs (OER can often be remixed and reused to suit a particular educational situation)–this enables education. I’m a WPA at a school where poverty is an issue. Alabama is not the wealthiest state–we’re 42nd for income per capita. We’re ranked 9th for the number of folks living below the poverty level (below the poverty level–didn’t find anything about everyone living around and just above the poverty level). It makes sense that the condition of not having enough food, adequate shelter or clothing would have an impact on one’s education. When text could be provided to schools for less than the current outrageous spending for textbooks–what could that savings be spent on: computers, wi-fi, printers? It’s naive for me to think that a savings in one area of education would automatically beget largesse in another, but I have hope. Always hope. Being involved in open and working on OER (editing, writing, advocating) is, for me, nothing short of my duty as an educator and a citizen of the world.

That sounds high and mighty, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It’s a high and mighty thing.

Recently, I was on a panel about OER at the Computers & Writing conference. One colleague, Craig Hulst, talked about whether we had an ethical obligation to create OER when we could and when it was right (when it’s right was the focus of Charlie Lowe’s talk, my other colleague on the panel)–all of us are involved with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource. The answer to Craig’s question–did we or didn’t we?–was “Yes, we did. We are ethically bound to share our knowledge.” Of course, I believe this. I have said before, here and just about anytime anyone asks me about being open: if you attain ninja rank and you do not teach and share what you know, you risk losing your ninja membership card. Or you could burn in hell.

The right path is clear, isn’t it? (Or was I just over-the-top again? Ah well. If you’re not living on the edge, how can you see the view?) If I’m going to be a WPA, and I’m going to be for some time to come, I hope, then I need to be an open WPA. Or I could lose my ninja card. That would totally suck.

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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Reading & Writing

Taking it personally: baseball and writing

Right this minute I’m taking baseball and writing personally.

Once again Jim Bouton comes to me, as if in a dream–unexpectedly and precisely–to put words into my head that I suspect will never leave me alone until I write about them. I mentioned in an earlier post about the “gripping” end to Ball Four (1970) that 20+ years after reading it, still resonates with my heart, still shakes my soul, still sits in my mind and defines how obsession works for me.

I just finished reading his follow-up tome, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally (1971). It appeared before me one day, and I was there, and it was there, so I read it. I started it last week while I was eating dinner and kept at it a bit at a time until today when I decided I needed to get through the final half. The pages are vintage 1970s–big print, lots of yellowing where the white space used to be, some old font I adore, ratty dust jacket all falling to pieces–and a giant black and white picture of Bouton on the back cover looking terribly handsome and very like the ham he confesses to be.

Bouton’s lyrically, deliciously, funny stories are alive to me again… and I recall how important Ball Four was to me at a critical point in my life. He/it was a “one.” You know what I mean–one of those moments, one of those influences, one of those turnings-down-a-path that colors the rest of your life. Reading his book, being open to the revolution of it, being willing to be guided by a passion greater than mine at the exact moment I needed that… well, it is truly a grand call to adventure that I answered and how. I read Ball Four for the first time when I was re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) a second or third time (and a lot of Samuel Beckett, too–what does that say about me?). Surely this can be no coincidence; surely the gods in Campbell’s book were looking out for me on that day in Chavez Ravine when a friend said, as we deliriously, happily, gleefully (always) watched the Dodgers, ate Farmer John hot dogs, and had a beer: “You like baseball so much, you really need to read Ball Four. I’ll lend you my copy when we get home.” And he did. Myth and baseball crashed at home plate. Baseball scored. Path defined. Path taken. Master’s thesis on baseball written… because my director asked to be my director when I said I was really doing a lot of thinking about baseball. He said, “I grew up going to Ebbets Field; I love the Dodgers; you should really do your thesis on baseball/rhetoric/mythology/sociolinguistics.” Or something like that. So I did. The director of my master’s thesis then showed me a doctoral program to go to, and forced me to apply (really, gave me the application, a pen, and said to get busy while he went to get us coffee), and the mything of my life went on and on. He was a “one,” too.

Even now I can tell you how every “one” in my life has helped me fulfill some aspect of my hero’s journey (I use the term hero to apply to my life only in the sense that I am on a long ol’ journey that periodically, and oddly, seems to follow the form of the true hero’s journey–not sure how it happens–is it because I always see what I’m looking for?). Lots of “ones” have inspired me, and not just Jim Bouton in baseball. I would include Gary Carter who hit for the cycle, at 37 years old, one night when I was at Jack Murphy Stadium watching him catch and hit like he was fifteen years younger–I would definitely include him as a “one.” He was beautiful, and 37 seemed so ancient and wise to me then; I was stunned by his performance and wondered, post-Ball Four, if this was the last time I might see him do that, if he was at the end of his career, if he would find that baseball had gripped him rather than the other way around. (He was just 37–can you imagine?)

Shoot, I can’t tell you much of anything about Gary Carter. I have no idea where he played or how long or the kind of career he ended up having (though I recall he was a great player–I’m sure he’s a Wikipedia entry–I hope he’s in the Hall of Fame). But I remember that night, sitting on the first base side, and him wheeling around to third for a triple… he was all kinds of lovely. I was so happy, I jumped up and down, and hugged my friend, and we yelled, “GARY GARY GARY.”  Who did he even play for in that game? I so don’t care. It was edifying to watch his hero’s journey and know that was what I was witnessing. If it was toward the end of his baseball journey, then it was a special moment; if not, it was still a special moment–who gets to do that in such a celestial sphere, surrounded by the most athletically talented in the world at their chosen sport? Not many. Playing major league baseball is breathing rarefied air indeed.

At the end of I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, Bouton talks about a former manager who suggested there are “three ways to get out of this wonderful game” [baseball]: “He said you could drink your way out, you could eat your way out, or you could f*&% your way out.” Bouton then writes, “You can also, I believe, write your way out” (219). I’m drinking the best coffee this Sunday morning, entirely enjoying the reading of this book that takes me back, not only to Bouton’s early 1970s, but to my early 1990s, and I get to this passage at the end, and I think:

Holy 8-ways-to-get-on-first-base moly.

I get that.  I’ve never had to work out how to retire from baseball, but I have had transitions that mocked my effort to understand my motivations, that grieved me greatly, that made me question what I was doing and what all around me were doing.  I’ve often thought about how to get out of something and into the next phase of my life. Not that I think the manager was right about everything. But then I think:


Yep. I have always written my way into and out of things. Not always productively, though. The manager was right in one way–there are always several ways for a body to screw up. And I’ve probably chosen questionable paths plenty of times, on purpose and not. Bouton is right, though, too. He wrote his way to another part of his journey. And writing is a mighty powerful thing to do. Bouton, who calls former players things like perspicacious (thank you, James Alan Bouton), is once more right here to clarify my thinking for me. He’s a “one” still. Much of this book is about his writing his way through the transition out of baseball, into full-blown authorial celebrity, and into broadcasting, and processing the aftermath of the huge success of Ball Four. I not-so-secretly adore him and wish Elizabeth Gilbert had been around for him to hear/read when he was in his early 30s wrestling with the changes he was undergoing and writing about in both books (she had a freakishly successful book, too–though it wasn’t about her writing her way out of baseball but out of a serious relationship funk). Her talk on Ted.com really gets at the core of what Bouton writes about: 1) showing up to do your job (in baseball or whatever) no matter what; 2) how genius occasionally comes to you (but can’t be counted upon, like the knuckleball which seems to go to its knuckleball “space” whenever it feels like it and only sometimes shows up for the game); and 3) how writing is a weird business (whether it’s a vocation or avocation or a profession–messing around with words can mess you up).  Perhaps in a perfect universe-colliding moment they will run into one another and recognize their similar geniuses (which only some times show up for work), and I will get a mental text on my mental smart phone that this happened and be full of myself for thinking it was a good thing that came true.

Baseball and writing for me then, is about showing up to do the work even when my genius won’t come out of the wall. Coming back to this blog when I think I can’t write anything of import. Going ahead into the game, going ahead with the words, with the charts, with the writing, with the thinking, with the cartoons, with the dreams, with the “play ball”–even when there’s no chance I’ll get a hit. It’s about taking what I do personally. Like this writing. It’s so personal, and yet, it’s seriously public. The minute I published one word here, it was forever cast in stone in some Library-of-Congress-time-machine-internet-capturing-conspiracy-net that keeps everything forever. It became history that I’ll never get away from, at word one. And what’s especially shocking to me is that I never would have taken this writing seriously (personally) until someone said to me: “You should really blog. Just do it–it’s a good place to work out what you’re thinking.” Good suggestion. So I did. I recognize a call to adventure when I see it now (like working as part of the team that does things with Writing Spaces, an open educational resource). It’s all part of understanding how to be a fully realized human, and recognizing the journey I’m on that gets me to a place of quiet, peace, unity, and words that sing. Sounds sort of cornball, but there it is: me taking it all personally and connecting things and ideas and finding my way to something I didn’t have before writing today. Now I have this. This piece of writing, this thinking, this moment of bliss that is being followed (“Follow your bliss”) thanks to Jim Bouton, Joseph Campbell, and a host of other co-conspirators on my journey who I guess would prefer to remain “players to be named later” or not at all. Because of them (and me), I followed my bliss. And how fine is that? Very fine.

I wish, wish, wish, just a bit of this hero’s journey vibe will rub off on my teaching so my students will know that what feels like colossal errors now are just speed bumps in their lives slowing them down, for sure, but not stoppage forever. I hope they get that. I’m a living embodiment of overcoming colossal error–in fact, I’m not even close to over that part of life–it’s just easier to forgive myself now. Is that maturity? If it is, I’m afraid it’s being wasted on me. It should be dusted on the young so they will have grander journeys, so they will change the world in better ways than I have, so they will recognize earlier in their lives the importance of their existence. Or, damnitalltohell, is that the point of the journey? That it isn’t until later on that we get what it all means and why it takes so long to get it and then, only then, we are driven to attempt to teach the young and feel everlasting-have-mercy-on-my-soul frustration when they don’t seem to listen!? Aha.

Irony of ironies.

So my words of wisdom to my young friends might be: baseball and writing, learning and the hero’s journey, mythology and baseball (Luke accepts the call to bat, Obi-Wan is the 1st-base coach, Luke is on his own for stealing or getting to second, Yoda is the 3rd-base coach, Darth Vader the pitcher, Luke is the boon-bringer as he comes home to score)–see the ball, be the ball, hit the ball, run like hell. Doesn’t it all just make the MOST sense?

I write here when I’m full to the brim and have to say what I need to say.  Does that mean what I think? Could I possibly be my own boon-bringer? If that’s the case, I’m rocking it. My writing here has led to celebration, satisfaction, loads of fun, and, what’s more, productive thinking for school, work, home, and everything/everywhere in between. Perhaps my writing is gripping me now instead of me gripping it. Is that possible?

Wouldn’t it be nice if baseball gave me all that? Maybe it just did.

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Filed under Magic and Writing, Writing and Identity

Thinking about readability trumps football

Even a close game like The Iron Bowl couldn’t divert me (for long) from thinking about readability today (and this is a banner year for me: an alum of TCU and Boise State, and teaching in the Auburn Univ. system).  I should be more involved with college football, at least, but there it is: I seem to be only on the fringe these days. For this very moment, text is vastly more entertaining. (I have to admit, though, there are moments when a stunning fade will capture me entirely, and if a receiver catches it in his fingertips then drives into turbo, way way WAY past the defense, for a game-saving TD–that is diverting.)

Readability. Sometimes you just can’t shake something from the back burner. Today it’s front and center. Why? No idea. Fate? The timing is right? Did I read something recently that was so hard, I abandoned it (Thomas Pynchon, no doubt)? Not sure.  I do know readability is relevant to me right now because information design matters to me at this point in my life. I’m trying to work out several kinds of knowledge I possess and how to share that information to maximum effect. My current tools are inadequate. I want pretty charts; moving charts, literally and metaphorically. I want data that is beautiful, that is art, that is readable. Of course, that all leads me back to the text that I want to be part of the information design, and this all leads me to what I spend a lot of time thinking about: college writing instruction.


Do folks in college writing studies do much with readability measurement? It certainly changed textual production in the 20th century, but do we pay enough attention to it in college classes, especially in college writing classes? I don’t know, but it’s on my list of things to dig into when I feel like digging into a database, because readability matters in college, for sure to beginning college writers, and by extension, their teachers.

I certainly haven’t paid much attention to readability since I got back to teaching college writing in 2007. I have assumed three things as a college writing teacher: 1) if I have interest in a text, then I can teach it; 2) if I can convince students of the rightness of reading a text, they will do it; 3) college textbook producers know what they are doing. But I’m wrong. Here’s why: 1) just because I care, doesn’t mean anyone else will–a few will (my devoted Star Trek writing students); 2) even at my most persuasive, a text can baffle, even proficient readers; and 3) maybe college textbook producers don’t care about readability. This certainly explains my experience in micro and macro economics. I considered myself more than a proficient reader, but I couldn’t “get” it by reading the $120 book. This is something I hear from students a lot: “I read it, but I don’t get it.” And really, if you picked up a college text and tried to plow through, you might only get a portion of it or not get it at all. Some of the college texts I’ve read (I use the term “read” loosely here) are often written for a specific discourse community with specialized vocabulary and conventions that are alien to a reader’s experiences. How does a disinterested reader get over that? How does a semi-interested reader get over that?

The answer is complicated. Some students are not able to get over the disconnect between what they can read independently and what they might need serious instruction to understand–especially when a teacher assumes the text IS the instruction. Related to retention? Oh. My. Word.

Many college teachers I know complain that students “don’t read” anymore. Did they ever? Did any students ever power through the boredom of incomprehensible text? I certainly didn’t as a freshman. I read what I wanted to–some of it sophisticated, some of it fun, some of it mildly difficult, but I only read what I wanted to read, easy or hard, and never to learn how to do anything in my college classes. I was such a brat. (In my defense, I think the economics textbook was truly awful–not one bit of humor nor an engaging voice–yuck.) Furthermore, moveover, and get this: I never read a syllabus until I wrote one. I really need to think about that statement in a quiet moment.

John Trimbur writes about the ethics of boredom in his text, The Call to Write. I have used this text to teach many times, and I like this part about reading and boredom. It’s something like this: saying you’re bored with a text doesn’t necessarily mean it’s boring; you might not be ready to read the text. You might need to work harder and better in order to comprehend–multiple readings, with vocabulary instruction, group discussion, outlines, and additional reading. Ah. I wish I’d known about how to name what I said a billion times as a freshman. I’m not sure it would have changed my path much. Going to college right next to the beach was hard get past and made it nearly impossible for me to study most of the time–oh, and did I mention the bar on campus next to the pool perched on the cliff with ocean views? No carding. So there was really no hope for me back then, but understanding textual “boredom” might have helped me more appropriately teach writing to the struggling students I encountered early in my career, or rather, tried to teach. (Perhaps I have the wording all wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching them, but inviting them to learn.)

Regardless of what I call what I do in the classroom–teaching, or an invitation to learn, or modeling life-long learning–it’s often all about the penetrability of the text. Can students get into a text or can’t they? Knowing something about the text and its readability could help me. It was only in K-12 curriculum development that I learned about readability when I created and selected text for striving readers and writers. AND because I tend to connect information well after I acquire it to weave new knowledge for myself, I am only today getting around to this thinking, the connections, and these questions.

So… why wouldn’t this readability jazz help me talk about text with my students–emergent and proficient and all in between? It could give me a heads-up about how I could introduce a text, anticipate when students might need more information or context, or when I should use a text multiple times to ensure its status as a touchstone text–a mentor text. Also, because I am a writing program administrator, I have to think about professional development all the time. Could I help the composition teachers in my program if they could calculate readability levels and use this information to support teaching, high school dual enrollment, basic college classes, freshman composition, and junior-level professional writing classes?

I decided to try an experiment today during The Iron Bowl (and it’s lasted through the Oregon/Arizona game).  I took text from five chapters in an open educational resource, Writing Spaces, and ran it through several readability measures.  (Thanks to the folks who made these things online–can you imagine all this was done manually at one time? The math is gorgeous, but the labor is intense.) I tested all five chapters for three measures and then ran one of the texts through an additional measure just to check. All very casual at this point. I don’t make any claims that might be concrete, solid, or anything like “this is right” because I didn’t check my work, but has it been a fun project for Black Friday? Damn straight.

Most of the measures have been quibbled over in the past and most have been improved upon by the originators and then collaborators–including computer programmers who made modern readability possible online and made the measurement tools all the way open (I love open). I checked for the following (in order of chronological development from the mid- to late 20th century):

  • Flesch–measures reading ease; out of 100 which is the easiest; 60-70 is excellent for a variety of readers; lower scores=harder to read.
  • Flesch-Kincaid, measures text in a similar way to Flesch, but it weights things differently to find the approximate grade-level of a text (at least this measure used to be part of the tools in MS Word).
  • Gunning Fog–years of education needed to read fluently and with comprehension–12 is a senior in high school.
  • SMOG, Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (I swear), suggests the years of education needed to comfortably read a text. (I only used this on one text.)

Go Arizona! If Oregon loses, it will benefit TCU–I’m still “watching” football as white noise at minimum.

I’m not going into detail here, but each chart (below–Figures 1-4 with some notes) can be interpreted individually, but generally, I found the below interesting points (please note that each chapter appears twice on each chart–once without extraneous text included and once with everything–so there are ten bars total):

  • Readability for the text alone is higher (or more difficult) than the text which included everything: references, discussion questions, etc. I think this is because of the shorter sentences of questions and short sentences of the references–a guess for now.
  • Readability levels are slightly higher than I’ve heard is apropos for college: 2 of 5 are in the range I would have guessed for college level; 3 were just a wee bit higher.  And this next is all my memory: I think text for struggling readers in middle school and above (including adults) should be somewhere around 4th-6th grade; high school needs to be 8th-9th grade; college is something like 10th grade and above; post-BA college is much higher.

Well. Writing Spaces appears to rock readability. Still, I coded the names of the articles/authors for now, despite the openness of Writing Spaces, partly because this is fooling around, and it’s not comprehensive; it was just something that came into my head this morning. It could be something terrific later, and I think it will be. For today, it’s glorious fooling around.

(And just to be sure there’s full disclosure: I’m an assistant editor for WS and professionally invested–personally invested, too. And I would like to note that I am doing what I vowed I would in one of the first posts here: include mention of WS in every post, but that’s not been hard at all. AND it’s important for me to make this clear, too, no one involved gets financial compensation on that project–most of what I’ve learned about the open movement isn’t about money anyway; it’s about doing what’s right with the knowledge we gain/create and openly sharing for and with all. Here’s where a kicked-up version of Word Press might have served me better: perhaps I could have added this aside in a footnote.)

The below, Figure 1, is the Flesch measure results, the oldest chronologically, of the readability measures I applied. Here 100 is the easiest to read–100 being a wordless book, I’d guess. The lower the score goes, the more difficult the text. One chapter is in the 40s, but most are in the 50s-70s range: nice.

[Figure 1]

I know the names of the articles are all over the place. For today, I’m okay with this. Hope you are, too. (And the pictures are really poor quality–sigh–that’s something I can fix later. Hope it’s all discernible for today–I mean, readable.)

The below is a collaborative improvement (perhaps) of Flesch with Kincaid, though the measurement is slightly different than Flesch. The 10th grade level is about right, so I’ve read, for college readers–might could be this is correct for beginning college readers, but still generalities get me riled up if I think about them for too long. Might could be a lot of worthwhile work is on the horizon along this vein (or has been done already–need to get into that database). “Might could be” is a Southernism I have apparently picked up and added to my writing repertoire. Wonder what impact it has on my readability?

[Figure 2]

Below, in Figure 3, the Gunning Fog measure (1950s) suggests the years of formal education needed to comprehend a text in a first reading. I am SURE my economics textbook would have measured off the chart.

[Figure 3]

So fuzzy.  BUT so interesting.

I ran one of the essays, the one with the best readability rating in each measure, through SMOG and got this result:

[Figure 4]

That’s worse than them all for fuzz, I’m afraid: the grade level is 10.25 for essay 2LWO (the first part of sophomore year in high school). The Gunning Fog is 9.7; Flesch-Kincaid is 7.1; Flesch is 70.74. All right at the point where I thought college readers might be. But there is a multiple grade difference from the SMOG to the Flesch-Kincaid. Does that matter to me?  No. I don’t think it does.

Who says that these are all right, I wonder? I’ll need to find out if anyone says one measurement system is vastly better than another. But like teaching methods/strategies–I believe nothing is a panacea. Own all the tools, try them all, and individualize whenever possible. People teach people, programs DO NOT teach people. Or put another way: people learn from people, not from programs. No pre-planned curriculum meets the needs of every student. Teachers with a lot of tools to work with and some experience can build a field of dreams. Maybe readability can be another tool for college writing teachers–at least the college writing teachers I’m responsible for helping… and me.

Another thing I need to find out: does all this mean something to college writing instruction as a field? Or is it “been there, done that”? More thinking–great. Minimum takeaway: my syllabus is getting run through a readability tool before the spring term.

For Black Friday, though, I’m mighty happy to have had a project like this to keep me inside (it’s rained all day), to make me write about something I care about (writing about writing is a good thing), to let me think about football peripherally (not a bad thing), and to show me a path I might travel along professionally, or at least investigate more deeply (this might be a yellow brick road for me–where are my ruby slippers?).

Arizona really needs to get it together. It’s not looking good. Do I care more about college football than I let on?

Full disclosure time again: I really love team sports, especially college sports, especially baseball and football, but any sports as metaphors for writing is a fine thing. Hitting in baseball is nice for teaching writing. But isn’t a blog something like a pass in football, specifically a fade? I am throwing to you, the reader, way far down the field.  You had to get all the way through most of this to see what it was all about–but you trusted me, you looked back toward me when you thought the point might arrive, and there was the point, coming to you, and here you got to the end. And if this means anything to you, you can elegantly catch it and run to score in your own way. Isn’t that what writing, thinking, knowledge management, and open is all about? I pitch, you catch. Later, you throw it back, better than before–or better still–together, we do something spectacular.

Writing is indeed like team sports. Perhaps it’s more like being a pitcher than a quarterback, but no matter the details, it’s about trust and not being alone on the field. I find great comfort in that.

Last play of the game: the readability for this post. Go out 5 and turn left to the hash mark on zebra white blue 86 hut. And there’s the catch: I’m writing so 9th graders can get it. I’m good with my general readability level being at 9th grade. Might could be it’s my ideal audience. Might could be that I’ve never really stopped being 14 years old.

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SuperComposition Person and Ed.

A few colleagues and I have begun creating cartoon characters to support and brand our composition program (they were adjuncts, now full-time employees–and two more coming on board soon).  We started with SuperComposition Person (SCP) and ninja sidekick editor, Ed.–no name, just Ed. which is short for editor.  Not sure Ed. ever speaks, but I really like him–takes down comma errors with grace, precision, and lighting speed.  SCP speaks–in fact, SCP is a writing professor by day, hero of composition all other times.

It all began when we decided we needed some unusual thing to do in a training–so we asked teachers to name a super power they’d like to have in the writing classroom. That was a fun discussion. The next day, a colleague and I cooked up the guts of SCP and Ed.; the week after, another colleague who happened to be an artist, created this first iteration (second image below). During a portfolio reading, we kicked it up a notch and got enthusiastic approval from colleagues in biology and history.

Eventually we added in a few more characters as time and talent allowed, pulling from resources as diverse as small children and parents related to this blogster, students, more teachers, friends, faculty, staff, local artists, high school students.

For our big celebration, AUM Writes!, on Oct. 20 this year, The National Day on Writing, we created buttons with some of the characters and got the help of our senior graphic artist on campus to create a t-shirt that we ran out of in record time.  Next year, we hope to have much more art work completed and put a Pantheon of Composition Heroes on a t-shirt to celebrate who we are and what we write (first image below).

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I’m working on a short film to introduce more characters to our community–I might be able to get that handled in the next week or so. We want more artists involved because we can’t do all the drawing; we want more writers working on the back stories of heroes and villains already created; we want visionaries who will help us turn this into a graphic novel. So we need to talk about it and ask for involvement.

But until all that happens, I plunge forward in the very best super hero-like fashion I can to work on projects I believe are important. I have been inspired by this work with colleagues and students and family and friends to not let go of it, to not let it rest too long… Writing here makes me accountable for commitment, I think. If I say it here, can it get out of doing it? Nope.

AND I have also begun giving writing advice to anyone I think needs it, swooping in during meetings and trainings when colleagues from across the disciplines display frustration over why students can’t write: “TA-DA…’tis I, your writing colleague come to save the day.”  Normally, I don’t like to talk in public much in this way, but lately, no problem.  I’m all about broadcasting open educational resources and how one can employ such to teach and help students learn. At the very least, I explain with much patience and sincere love, you should visit Writing Spaces to see what’s there that might help you and your students talk about writing together as you sort through their experience, your expectations, desired outcomes, and as you both craft a writing experience that could end up doing several things: 1) help you assess student learning; 2) help students learn more about writing; 3) give students more experience writing with expert guidance. There it is. Use it.

I felt very heroic yesterday when I was able to tell sociology, political science, and theater professors: “Here, check this out. It’s for you and your students. It already belongs to you.”

Ninja, right? Sure felt like it.

AUM Writes! 2nd Annual National Day of Writing Celebration

AUM knows how to celebrate writing.

Isn’t this spectacular?  “Fighting writing crime… one sentence at a time” was a collaborative effort between myself and a colleague–the kind of seamless joy that happens when one of you says ___ and the next one says ____, and it becomes something that delights everyone and makes work not work at all.

Composition Cartoon Heroes

SuperComposition Person & Ed.

When we first saw this art, of course it was a pencil sketch, but it was very exciting for all of us–then our artist did THIS.  We’d done something tangible, visual, creative, and fun. To protect the guilty/innocent, I refrain from mentioning names here in this blog, besides my own, but there were many, many people who worked on this project because no one could do this (or writing program administration) alone (and have a day job–we all teach full-time and do everything else on top of that).  When I manage to write this into article form for some academic journal, so I can keep doing what I do, then I’ll list the minors, adults, and seniors who made this possible.

For now, and I’m okay with this, I’m brainstorming what’s possible in this live space, hoping the writing here that feels both private and public will help me articulate how WPAs should be envisioning writing programs as the best entrepreneurial enterprises, publicizing their work across K-12, sponsoring workshops on writing in the community, branding their programs; we need successful, and I mean wildly successful, models to look at and draw from, because we are creating products that matter more than any other: students who can think and can be productive citizens of the world.  And if we need cartoon characters to inspire and/or capture them and keep them enthralled, or even in thrall, then that’s my 5-year mission.

Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.

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Writing, dance, and math

Why don’t I teach dance, writing, and math together?  All three do the same thing: communicate.

Writing: expression.

Dance: expression.

Math: expression.

And there we have it.  Patterns, planning, movement, revision, stories, practice, rehearsal, communication, symbols, letters, signs, meaning. Word problems. Story problems. Honestly. Who writes about this intersection? Where would a logical place for such speculation be found? Here. Because I’m doing it right now. But where else? There must be interdisciplinary journals I’ve never dipped into whose authors write about the connections between math, dance, and writing. Perhaps a chapter in an open educational resource like Writing Spaces might be appropriate, if such linkage could illuminate something vital about writing for college students. Do we need to explicitly draw the lines between movement studies, writing studies, and mathematics? We might do well to shed disparate learning environments in colleges/universities.

Right this minute, I’m not sure what to do with this idea, so I’ll just keep wondering and wandering. If I take just a moment to envision the implications of all three subjects in one space, I can envision writing workshops in which math and movement are linked with writing projects in 2D, 3D, video, audio, numbers, words, paper.  I’d need a really big room with lots of space and computers and smart boards and cameras and lots of natural light. And an ash floor for moving around, lots of support and give–I love to dance on ash wood floors. And loads of mirrors. Dancers need to see dancing. Lots of paper, too. All kinds. And we’d need pens, crayons, chalk, paint, charcoal, pencils, ink, and a whole lot of “I don’t care how messy it gets.”  Younger students, older students, any students. We’d tell stories with everything we have.

Right this minute, as I’m writing, I’m listening to music. And, you may need to sit down for this one: phantoms dance in my mind’s eye with each note of every song, always, haunting me, calling me to move again, to see how words and numbers and counting and movement all come together, 5, 6, 7, 8.  Always someone is dancing when I hear music. Sometimes it’s me dancing, but mostly it’s someone else I choreograph for, someone else who dances now. When I was a dance major, I was required to take choreography. The course was called “composition” because we composed stories for our bodies to tell. I think we must have counted to 1 billion through the semester.  We composed.  We moved.  We moved others.  We counted, we moved, we composed.

Sharp intake of breath.

(That felt self-indulgent as I am just now working out the depth of the bonds in my mind between math, dance, writing, and, really did feel like I should inhale on the screen, for my own sake, and in case no one noticed THAT, I needed to reinforce the fact that I am just now working this all out here by drawing attention to the textual inhalation in a lengthy parenthetical–wish I could figure out how to use footnotes in a blog–I love Infinite Jest.  So. Skip ahead if you like because this next reference is so odd that it might make you, Gentle Reader, want to click away, though it does directly connect to baseball, mentioned later on: would Crash Davis, a faded/fading/starmaker/mentor/catcher in Bull Durham, call blogging self-indulgent crap like he did the works of Susan Sontag? It does seem self-indulgent, especially right this minute. But crap? I rather like to think blogging is a way to selectively unclutter my mind and explore ideas about writing which might lead to professional and personal happiness. Blogging: an online highway to happiness. Self-indulgent? Maybe. Crap? Hell no. Who cares what Crash Davis thinks anyway? He’s fiction.)

Back to my anaphora: “right this minute” (See how footnotes would have been so great here. I could have attached a footnote to the phrase at it appears a third time below and avoided another break in your reading, and my writing, and still kept this terribly pithy reference to rhetorical figures of speech in here somewhere–my favorite figure of speech is anaphora. The Wikipedia authors on the term say Charles Dickens was well-known to use anaphora. Of course. Of course it’s my favorite figure of speech.)

Right this minute, as I write, as I listen, as I dream, while I may be indulging myself in words and thinking, I know this, too: I miss quadratic equations. Oh, differential calculus, why did I let you get away? I loved you so much.

One day, long ago, when I used to say silly things like, “I love to read, but I can’t write,” I pasted a nine-page calculus problem on my dining room wall to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Something had been bugging me about the problem or formula–I don’t even remember it now–and I couldn’t find a solution for hours, perhaps days. On the wall, everything changed. I saw three things: a dance, a story, and the answer. The wall nearly came alive; the math certainly did. It was art, it was text, it was formula, it was freedom, it was the future.

I never said “I can’t write” again. I solved problems with numbers, text, movement–it was, for a time, all the same to me. I knew everything was story, everything was moving, numbers were everything. Math taught me how to think and wonder; dance taught me how to move, how to achieve control and exuberance together; writing teachers/tutors taught me how to be patient and persistent…all of which I needed to communicate through the symbols we call letters, arranged in words, arranged in sentences, in paragraphs, in essays, in books, on the web.

Are there texts on the intersections of these three disciplines out there and I missed them? Totally possible. Instead of exploring this topic by searching a marvelous library database this evening, I am reading two frivolous texts as I recover from my week: a book on the history of cocktails and a collection of short stories by Edwidge Danticat. (She might quibble with me about calling her writing frivolous–it’s not at all–but it sure occupies that space as I have a lot of other work I should be doing that I am purposely, and successfully, avoiding by reading those two books and writing here. Damn. Am I frivolous? What if I am? Damn again.)

Are writers writing about dance, math, and writing? Could be. Where are the dancing mathematician writers? You are my people.

I desperately wanted to study more about all three together in my master’s program in grad school, but I got sidetracked by bad knees, Samuel Beckett, then baseball. No kidding. The rhetoric, sociolinguistics, and mythology of baseball–not a bad thing but not THIS. Not writing, math, and dance. When all three meshed, I felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do–a mind, body, spirit thing, perhaps, maybe, might could be.  Might could be it’s still a mind, body, spirit thing.

Math, writing, dance: even when I don’t consciously think about them, they weave together always, a tapestry of meaning wrapped snug around me like a smooth, thick, well-worn cloak in winter warming me to the core as I begin to think my education was never about getting a degree.

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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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