Monthly Archives: November 2010

Student reading tonight!

There will be a student-organized poetry reading tonight at 9:30 at Be Here Now, in the village. Here’s the lineup, in no particular order: Kelly Stacy, Alex Dunning, Joe Cermak, Layne Ransom, and Elysia Smith. If you are under 21, there is a $1 cover charge at the door. This will most likely be the last of these student-organized readings this semester, so don’t miss your chance to listen to some great work by your peers!

Guest Post: Steve Loser on finding purpose for his writing and the changing classroom

Steve Loser

It was Barbara Bogue’s class, Creative Writing in the Community, that made my writing find relevance.  By the time I got to college, education seemed so abstract and fragmented that it was hard to see its impact or decide where it becomes “real.” As a student, I was always told I needed to know something because “one day…” or “in the real world…” Bogue’s class required me to partner with another person from the community and write their story; give them a voice.  For the first time, there was a relevance to my writing that literally forced me to connect it to the real world. Something seemed selfish about the nature of writing to me. It felt like more of an act of self-exploration than human connection. I came to feel that if my talents did not serve those around me, I would never feel satisfied.  In this class, I discovered my professional life needed to consist of two things: daily conversations similar to the ones that took place in my English and philosophy classes, and service that impacted the lives around me. The next semester, I changed my major from Creative Writing to Education.

The classes I enjoyed most at BSU showed me the power of a classroom, leading me to my discovery that I never wanted to leave it.  Literature, as with any art, has the power to bring us together in an effective and efficient way.  I have yet to find anything more powerful than a conversation started by some form of text. Ball State then led me to believe that if I couldn’t use my knowledge to enact positive change, that knowledge was useless.  My goal as an educator has become to not only replicate this in my own classroom, but in every classroom.

The semester following Bogue’s class, I took an Intro to Education course, and things have grown exponentially from there. While at BSU, I got involved in as much as possible.  I became President of Lambda Iota Tau, the English Honor Society, and held open mics. The number one thing that prepared me for the classroom was a program called Urban Semester. This was an immersive program that placed me in an urban education environment for an entire year.  I took my education classes on-site while teaching each day, and completed my student teaching at the same school.  Again, my education was made real and relevant. I could not have grown as an educator or survived my first years at an urban high school without this experience.

The urban environment is exciting because it is the battleground for educational reform, which I love.  For one, urban students constantly demand “best practices.” Second, these schools are often in a state of crisis.  This demands constant reflection and professional growth. I have to “bring it” every moment I am in the classroom. Due to this, my school district has provided me with extensive professional development, keeping me on the cutting edge of classroom instruction.

The past three years, I have taught a variety of Language Arts classes at Ben Davis High School, ranging from Special Education, to Honors and Creative Writing. I have worked with Ball State professor Kenan Metzger to create a Teacher Advocacy Group, a group of like-minded teachers that come together to promote positive, professional change in their school building.  I presented at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in Orlando for the third time this month.  I was privileged enough to find a group of teachers that were tired of answering the question from students, “Why do I need to know this?” (a cry for relevance). We started examining our teaching and how we could change to better engage students.  With the support of the district, we started exploring an instructional methodology called Project Based Learning, where students are presented a real world problem or challenge and then work in a variety of ways to solve the problem or challenge, culminating with a product and public presentation. We started using it in our classrooms, documenting its impact, and starting conversations with other teachers and administration members about what we were experiencing.  Project Based Learning has grown from that small group of seven teachers to now being a school district initiative over the course of four years.

My work with this kind of teaching has led me out of the classroom for a while. This year, I took a position as an instructional coach focused on helping staff develop Project Based Learning Units throughout the school district.  I teach teachers to find where their content is relevant in the world and bring that into the classroom.  I am also working with organizations outside my school district to promote Project Based Learning.  The high school where I work will serve as host to the Project Based Learning Institute for the third time this summer, bringing in hundreds of educators from all around the country.

It all ties back to relevance.  Barbara Bogue’s class showed me that if my writing was not serving others, then my knowledge and skill was useless.  As a teacher, if my expertise in language arts is not serving the goals and needs of my students, it is useless.  And as a professional, if my expertise in teaching is not serving other teachers, it is useless.  My mission has become to create an educational revolution disguised as evolution, where the relevance is never in question.

“You Gotta Read This!” with Professor Debbie Mix

Debbie Mix

Anyone who has talked to me for more than, say, five minutes, probably knows the first book on this list: Moby-Dick.  Why?  Because it’s about everything!  Love, grief, justice, power, gender, epistemology, language, disability, anger, belief, history, responsibility, humor, awe, identity, race—and that’s just the beginning.  I’ll admit that I didn’t pick up this book by choice the first time (I had to read it in grad school), but now I pick it up regularly, and I really think you should, too.  After Moby-Dick the choices get harder, but here are a few more books I read this summer that I think are worth your time and effort:

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood: These two books are linked—two perspectives on a single set of events—and I read them side-by-side. These stories take us to a future riven by economic and genetic distinctions, and ask us to follow, and care about, the lives of characters living in different circumstances in that world.  Global warming, genetic modification, the gap between the haves and have-nots, pandemic diseases, all these subjects (and more) are Atwood’s concern.

Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse: It tells the story of Toland Polk, growing up white and gay in a small southern town in the middle of the Civil Rights movement.  The combination of image and text creates a compelling and profoundly human narrative about the intersections of the personal and political.  Cruse’s book is a great example of the nearly unlimited potential of graphic narrative to address complex issues in more than black and white ways.

The Circus in Winter, by Cathy Day: Even if Cathy Day hadn’t just joined our English Department, I’d encourage you to read this wonderful collection of linked short stories.  Set in the fictional town of Lima, Indiana (a stand-in for Peru, Indiana), these stories center around the Great Porter Circus, which makes its winter home in Lima.  We see the lives of performers, clowns, animal trainers, and others linked to the circus by chance, desire, and heredity.  At times funny, poignant, and heartbreaking, this collection is always humane and always fascinating.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich: Too often American Indians are represented in American culture as artifacts of the past rather than as citizens of the present.  One of Erdrich’s most important projects as a novelist has been to challenge that myth through her beautiful and unflinching depictions of present-day indigeneity.  This book, set on an Ojibwe reservation and the nearby town of Pluto, North Dakota, reaches back to the past—the brutal murders of a white family near the reservation in 1911—but its attention is on the present as Erdrich’s signature style of multiple intersecting narratives and gorgeous detail fills in the whole story.

Guest Post: Sarah Dalton shares her unique experience studying and teaching abroad, both great opportunities for students

Dalton takes Paris

There are few times in a person’s life when the opportunity to travel abroad is offered nearly every week in an email. At Ball State, there are numerous study abroad trips taken every semester, all varying in location, cost, and duration. Those who are interested in traveling, if looking in the right places, will be certain to find a trip that suits their interests and educational goals. I have been fortunate enough to travel abroad twice during my college career—two experiences that have been the most valuable in my life thus far.

The first opportunity to travel abroad came to me my freshman year. I received an email asking for students who were interested in teaching English at a summer English camp in Thailand. Students did not need English as a Second Language teaching experience, or even need to be English Education or ESL majors. I am an English Education major, so the opportunity to teach English and travel was one I could not pass up. I spent three weeks during Summer 2008 in a completely different culture, learning and experiencing Thailand’s customs, beliefs, values, and lifestyles. I, along with a dozen other Ball State students, taught at the Prince of Songkla University in Phuket. As a part of the trip, I was able to travel through Thailand with my students and Ball State peers, visiting many towns and cities such as Bangkok, Trang, and Surat Thani. Through my interaction with the Thai students, I developed a deeper appreciation for a culture much different from my own. I also gained valuable experience in the classroom, which has helped greatly in my other endeavors in the English Department and Teachers College.

The trip was so rewarding that it sparked an interest for more traveling! I asked the Rinker Center to put me on the mailing list for other study abroad programs, and also started checking out the study abroad fair that takes place at the beginning of both fall and spring semesters in the Atrium. Eventually, I discovered the Worcester Centre, which is a six-week summer program in Worcester, England. I learned that I would be able to take between six and nine credit hours from a list of courses offered in the program, and also have the freedom to do a lot of traveling in Europe.

During the summer of 2010, I was a Worcester University student. I took a British Life and Culture course and a British Literature course with English and German tutors (professors). The classes were interesting, challenging, and immersed me in the culture of England. I had class Monday through Wednesday, and Thursdays were designated for organized class day-trips around England. The British Literature course was especially interesting because I was able to visit the homes and places of inspiration of various authors we read in class. For example, after reading Romeo and Juliet, my fellow BSU students and I took a day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the home of Shakespeare, and had the opportunity to handle some of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts. We also saw a production of the play in a replica of the Globe Theatre.

Other places of interest that coincided with course readings were Bath, Birmingham, and Malvern. After reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, I walked through the streets of Bath that inspired some of her novels. I also toured through the remaining back-to-back houses in Birmingham after studying the history behind Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. Hiking through the Malvern Hills and drinking its famous natural spring water (originally believed to heal the sick) helped me understand why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were inspired to write some of their most famous books there.

Having the chance to visit the places I read about in books is truly a unique experience that enables me to understand the literature and authors in new ways. When I read about the neon signs and bustling sidewalks of Piccadilly Circus in London, I can picture it. I can remember what it feels like to be there, and I therefore have a deeper connection with the text.

As I alluded to earlier, I was given the freedom to explore Europe independently, and I certainly took advantage of that opportunity. Friends and I spent a weekend lying on the beaches of Tarragona, Spain, and admiring the famous architecture in Barcelona. Another weekend entailed French chocolate, a baguette lunch by the Eiffel Tower and a bicycle tour through Paris. One of the most memorable weekend trips was a three-day tour through the southern part of misty Ireland, which is the greenest, most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I also spent time exploring London and the quaint city of Worcester, which is about the size of Muncie. During these explorations, I learned a great deal about the types of food, music, literature, and entertainment people of different cultures enjoy and value.

My parents have always told me that a truly educated person is one who has seen the world. While I have yet to see many places, I have traveled enough to realize how valuable and life-changing it is. With that said, I would encourage anyone to travel abroad if the opportunity presents itself. In college, such opportunities are always there if you look for them. Take them while you can. After college, they tend to present themselves less often (and are usually not accompanied with scholarships or financial aid that will help pay some, if not most of the way). My college experience has been much richer and fulfilling because of my travels, and has also filled up my resume quite nicely, distinguishing me as a student and knowledgeable future teacher who can bring the world to her students.

Student chapbook release reading tonight!

The Jackalope Wars by undergraduate student Jeremy Bauer

Tonight at Village Green Records (located in the Village at 519 North Martin Avenue), there will be a student-run poetry reading featuring undergraduate students Lindsey Laval, Tyler Gobble, and Jeremy Bauer, with introductions by Layne Ransom. The event is to celebrate the release of Jeremy Bauer’s chapbook of poems, The Jackalope Wars—made in conjunction with Stoked Press, and also its premier release. Stoked Press is an independent press geared towards producing chapbooks and other small-run releases. It is the fledgling project of Tyler Gobble, president of Writers Community and active member of the Muncie literary community in general. The Jackalope Wars will be available for purchase at the event for $4 each.

For information on student, faculty, and department events, keep watching, BSU!

Guest Post: Christine Ellsworth on being an English major, living abroad, and her unexpected career choice

Christine (right center) with her husband

When I was an undergrad, I loved being an English major. I loved reading all the time, the writing, and the discussions that came with it. It took me a little while to figure out that English literature was the right major for me, but once I got there, it felt so great to finally be in a program I enjoyed and was passionate about.

Currently, I am studying in Ball State’s MA in TESOL (Teaching English as Second Language) program. I still find it ironic that I ended up here, because when asked, I would adamantly insist that I did NOT want to be a teacher. The path that led me here started with my interest in foreign languages. I took a few German and Italian classes, but my real love is French. After I spent a semester abroad, I couldn’t wait to find a way back to France. So, I applied for a position teaching English at l’Université de Nancy through the Ball State French department. A little piece of advice: if you want to spend time abroad, teaching is a great way to go because you get paid. Seven months later, I was on my way!

Teaching English in France was a true eye opener. To begin, I was completely terrified. I’ve always been a little shy, so the idea of standing up in front of a classroom was extremely intimidating for me. I’d never done it before and sometimes I wasn’t even very familiar with the subjects I was asked to teach. (Case in point: English phonetics. AH!) But it got easier as the year went on. And what surprised me the most—I actually enjoyed it! As the year came to a close, I realized I didn’t want to stop. Teaching English as a second language combined all of my passions, plus it allowed me to work with people in a meaningful way.

The next step for me was to get a degree teaching English as a Second Language. It was an easy decision to apply to the graduate school at Ball State. First of all, my soon-to-be fiancé was finishing his masters in Architecture at BSU. Also, after a campus visit and sitting in on a class, I was completely confident in the TESOL program. The opportunity to teach English in the Intensive English Institute (IEI) at Ball State seemed exciting as well. The IEI offers English classes for international students, and when I was offered a teaching assistantship in the IEI, the deal was sealed. I was headed back to Ball State.

Now I’m in the second year of my program and planning to graduate in the spring. Graduate school is challenging, but I’ve found that my literature classes prepared me well for the type of research, writing and analysis that is expected of me. What I love most about my program is that I get to teach people from diverse backgrounds. I’ve had students from Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and Tajikistan. Meeting new people and learning about other cultures is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. After I graduate, I hope to find a position teaching ESL at the university level, or perhaps abroad.

My advice to all you English majors out there is to not worry if you’re not sure where your English major will take you. There are more possibilities than you might think. If you’re like me, it may take you somewhere you didn’t expect!

Guest Post: Evan Himelick writes about using his English major and Digital Publishing minor in his internship with Sarabande Books

Evan Himelick

Instead of resorting to selling insurance while trying to apply for grad school after I graduated, I figured I should continue my education with a more hands-on approach. An internship seemed the perfect fit, and having graduated with a GPA that was certainly nothing to brag about, I saw an obligation to prove that those grades didn’t necessarily reflect my work ethic but rather my poor test-taking abilities.

I applied for internships at a slew of newspapers, magazines and publishers, and for six weeks I made myself send out at least two applications per day. I wasn’t positive where I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to be surrounded by words, lines of text, page numbers, and alluring graphics. After graduation, I was granted that and more as I accepted an internship with Sarabande Books, a nonprofit literary press in Louisville, Kentucky.

In September after my graduation, I started work with Sarabande and haven’t really looked back. It’s proved to be a fantastic opportunity that has not only surrounded me by brilliant, passionate people, but also allowed me to utilize my Ball State major in English and minor in Digital Publishing.

My English major comes in handy in most of the tasks you’d assume: copy editing text for our catalog, writing rejection letters, typing stories that are out of print, responding to e-mails, working with promotional materials and the occasional blog post. In my classes for my minor, I worked with digital photography and manipulation, graphic design, and pre-press printing processes (packaging files for printers). I think the Digital Publishing minor helped me stand out from the average English department graduate by giving me an additional set of skills.

I’m very thankful for all the design responsibilities with which Sarabande has trusted me. I’ve had the opportunity to design flyers such as the one for our Flo Gault Student Poetry Competition. I designed folded cube advertisements for our monthly Sarabande Reading Series and was able to incorporate pieces of art from personal friends. I’ve done work with promotional postcards for amazing poets like Rick Bursky and made bookmarks for writers like Lydia Davis to distribute at readings and even this year’s AWP conference in Washington D.C.

I’ve been really inspired by the work done in and around Sarabande. I’ve been introduced to influential people in the Louisville writing scene, met with amazing authors like Kiki Petrosino, had dinner with the likes of Jason Schneiderman and Jennifer Kronovet, and participated in very rewarding activities like our recent poetry workshop with the Kentucky School for the Blind.

My other, more basic, responsibilities go by very quickly and often provide the most chances for the interactions that I’ll cherish after leaving the Sarabandistas. Mailing book galleys, sending out contributor copies, and signing donation letters give me a chance to sit side-by-side and pick the brains of the marketing genius Caroline Casey, our fearless Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gorham, my go-to wizard Meg Bowden and our design demigod Kirby Gann. It is quite the excellent trade-off for a day’s work.

My days off from my internship are quite different. To make a bit of side money, I’ve been substitute teaching all grades and disciplines in a few local counties. It is certainly respectable work and very emotionally satisfying but boy, is it a rough job. I manage to sweat through two layers of deodorant each day as I’m challenged by 13-year-olds that tower over me and insist on drawing attention to my likeness with Scooby Doo’s pal Shaggy. I struggle with keeping curse words from erupting from my mouth and finding time to slip away to the bathroom. It all pays off, though, hearing kids get settled in their seats and turn to their friends to ask, “Have you had Mr. H as a sub before? He’s cool.” I’ve come to relish small victories like these.

I prefer working with print over teaching; although teaching is definitely my back-up plan. I just hope that I can learn all I can from individuals like Kirby Gann and the other Sarabandistas and eventually further my education in the general realm of typesetting, design and all things print.

Sarabande graciously offered me a short-term position as Submissions Manager following the end of my internship, and that, combined with being able to substitute teach more days of the week, should allow me to compile some more money as well as work experience. I’m contemplating a move to Chicago to look for work and still considering applying to grad schools, but we’ll see what the future holds. Fingers crossed.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

On a side note to my fellow writers, Sarabande’s open submission period is during the month of September—more than enough time to clean up some of those rough edges before submitting! I thought I’d also mention two upcoming national contests held by Sarabande, open for submissions January 1- February 16. These contests are The Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and The Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the guidelines for which can be found at their respective links.

I would encourage anyone interested in an internship to apply to Sarabande. I believe the position has been filled for the Spring semester, but they’re always accepting applications.  Information on that can be found here.

Best of luck to all of you in whatever you choose to pursue!

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at Lehimelick@gmail.com.

Guest Post: Phil Call shares his experience in the English education program

Hey,

I’m Phil—a senior in the English education program. Essentially, I want to present a picture of the program by escorting you through some of my memories. If you’re new to or considering the English ed program, you might find some helpful tips; if you’re a non-English ed major, you might gain some insight into what our world is like; if you’re an old hat in the program, you might get a smile from reminiscing.

Back in my day *wheeze*, we didn’t have an introductory education course that was specific to English; we were introduced to the teaching world and Teachers College alongside other ed folks. With that kind of diversity, our professor, Dr. Wible, focused on teaching general strategies, practicing most of what he preached by utilizing the very teaching methods he commended to us. Later on, when I started teaching real students at real schools, I dug out the brain teasers, group-making tools, and ice breakers that he taught us and found they were quite helpful. *Suggestion: Have a place to record all the ideas for teaching that you hear from and/or see modeled by ANY teacher ANYWHERE. Dr. Wible was also real with us in saying that teaching can be _(insert word with negative connotation here)_. So, he required us to observe classes, tutor students, and really consider whether we wanted to step further into the world of education.

Having taken that step myself, I found that the middle years of the education sequence are rife with portfolios, rGrade, advisers, and Teachers College. By way of explanation, the portfolio is a website that each student makes to chronicle his/her changing perspectives on educational issues and to post “artifacts” from education classes that demonstrate pedagogical competency, and rGrade is an online program that tracks progress through certain “decision points,” each of which requires certain classes, grades, papers, and levels of portfolio achievement before the teaching candidate is allowed to move forward. The portfolio and rGrade cause most of the stress ed majors feel due to the work required and sometimes confusing requirements. *Suggestion: In order to alleviate the confusion caused by these issues, consult the English Education website and contact professors, advisers, and administrators (esp. Dr. Hartman) in the English Department regularly to make sure you’re on track.

All of the courses that I have taken through the English department and Teachers College have prepared me in some way for teaching. I use grammar skills almost daily to help students with worksheets; I recall methods courses to help me design lessons that avoid worksheets; I follow professors’ examples when I work with students one-on-one; I call on literature I have read to supplement students’ readings; I implement lessons from my communication classes to teach clearly and confidently…the list could go on. *Suggestion: Push the bounds of these classes and your professors.

Outside of BSU’s regular course offerings, I have found it helpful to volunteer tutor at Motivate Our Minds and Academic Achievers in town; tutor for pay at the Writing Center in RB 291 (the Learning Center is another option) and The Compass; and practice teaching through an Honors College program that allows undergraduates to teach an elective course under the mentorship of a professor. These experiences have helped me in the classroom and have also helped me with the Praxis 2, a content-specific, multiple-choice test for education majors. *Suggestion: If you’re sweating Praxis 1 or 2, just study SAT guides: English and Math for 1, and just the long reading passages for 2.

Currently, I’m doing my practicum in Anderson, where I’m working with a teacher for two morning periods for four weeks at the junior high and then four weeks at the high school. My practicum cooperating teacher at the junior high will be the same teacher I’ll work with during student teaching, which is great. I’ve been biting off as much as I can during class—helping students one-on-one, working with small groups, administering spelling tests, giving dramatic readings of “The Raven,” and learning how to manage teenagers in a classroom. She’s given me a lot of latitude to experiment with different ideas that I have while still supporting me so I don’t fall flat on my face.

Looking forward, I wonder about my own classroom. As much as I have learned from taking college classes and observing secondary school classes, I think there are other methods for teaching that will benefit my future students, examples of which I have seen by searching for “Sudbury Valley School” and “New Tech High” on YouTube. One activity that is helping me to feel less nervous about teaching solo is to write out everything I want to do with my future students. To that end, a friend, Luke Boggess, and I are bouncing ideas off of each other, contemplating what we want our classes to be like, and outlining our thoughts on a website (contact me if you’d like the url). *Suggestion: Try to solidify your own teaching plan via combination of practice and theory so that you won’t be left resorting to less effective methods when you start teaching.

Best of luck,

Phil Call

Reading tonight!

Tonight at 7:30, in Bracken Library room 104, there will be a reading from alumnus Matt Hart and Professor Michael Meyerhoffer. Both writers are noted poets, with two books of poetry published each, as well as numerous literary journal publications. Opening the reading will be guest student reader Ryan Rader, who was chosen from among a number of anonymous entrants. As has been the fashion of these recent readings, undergraduate students submitted their work anonymously for a chance to open the reading, with the main-event writer/writers choosing the winner. These readings have been spectacular this year, and attending can be of great personal benefit. Alumnus Nate Logan remarked in an interview that while attending a poetry reading here at Ball State his sophomore year, he was inspired to change his academic track to include a Ph.D. Creative Writing program. Of course, that doesn’t mean the same will happen to everybody, but to hear an author read their own work is a treat nonetheless. And who knows, if you aren’t an English major already, maybe you’ll consider the option.

Guest Post: alumnus Sarah Marty-Schlipf writes on her whirlwind life after graduating from Ball State

I’ll be honest: I spent most of my four years as an English major at Ball State “following my bliss,” as they say, without any certainty of what an English major might actually do outside the world of academia.  I followed a lifelong love of words and stories into literature and theatre, and I followed pure fascination into religious studies.  (I was a secondary English education major for awhile—following the need for a “real job”—but after a complicated series of events, I decided that teaching wasn’t for me. I couldn’t have told you then what was for me, exactly, so I just immersed myself in my other studies and hoped I’d figure it out, eventually.)  I took a couple of forays into interdisciplinary studies at the wonderful Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, first examining the development of charter schools and then looking at the nature of poverty and the means of addressing it in the Muncie community.  And through it all, I loved the learning: the heated discussions in the English, religious studies, and VBC classrooms, the push to think about stories and characters critically and with empathy, and my own developing ability to articulate my thoughts more clearly both verbally and in writing—so much writing.

The closer I came to graduation, however, the less I had any real sense of direction, apart from my general love of learning.

After I graduated in 2008, I spent a year of productive stumbling that included teaching summer swim lessons to little kids; three months volunteering as an artist in Zambia at an economic development center run by missionary friends; interviewing as a finalist for a fellowship at NPR; and a couple of semesters at Ivy Tech Community College as an office assistant, an English tutor, and eventually an accidental adjunct English instructor.  I say “accidental” because one week before the fall classes were to begin, the college asked me to take two last-minute composition courses.  While I felt relatively unqualified for the position, I took it on as a kind of challenge.  It was a chance to find out if I was any good at teaching and if I could enjoy it.  And while it was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had, I discovered that I loved teaching writing to working adults, many of whom hadn’t stepped foot in a classroom in three decades, and many of whom had hated writing and reading (and school, for that matter) for most of their lives.  It was incredibly satisfying to hear my students  discuss different essays, to watch their command of language and their own ideas improve.  “This is a class,” I had told them, “Where you have the luxury of time to think, to discuss, to put your own ideas down, and to understand why they matter.  How often in your busy lives do you get that?”  It was a pleasure to find out, at the end of the semester, that many of them had believed me, that they’d loved the class.  Moreover, in the process of teaching the basics of writing, my own writing improved, and my sense of direction finally sharpened: I wanted to see if I could combine words and stories, arts and literacy, and explore their impact on a community.

I taught another class before marrying, moving to central Illinois, and going back to school. I’m now a graduate student in Antioch University Los Angeles’  MFA in Creative Writing program.  It’s a two-year low-residency degree, which means I’m only required to be on campus in L.A. for two 10-day “residencies” per year, and the rest of the time, I’m writing from home, wherever that may be.  Since my husband and I travel a great deal, “home” has been all over the world.   Antioch’s unique focus on the intersection of art and social change means that we’re required to complete field studies as well, so while I don’t automatically get the graduate teaching experience a traditional MFA program might offer, my field study has given me the chance to shape my own unique teaching experiences here in Illinois: when I’m not on the road, I’m a volunteer teacher for our YWCA’s Adult Literacy program, developing and leading creative writing classes for incarcerated women at our local jail and federal prison.  And when I’m not studying or writing or teaching, I’m employed at our local library, under the mentorship of the library director, learning what it takes to run a nonprofit.

I say all of this because I’ve come to think that sometimes your direction finds you.  Or, in my case, maybe you stumble into it.  I happen to have found satisfying work that combines and explores most of my passions, and in the best way possible, I blame my English major for that.  As a degree, it has certainly opened up a diverse set of opportunities for me in terms of careers, fellowships, volunteerism, and graduate education.  As a learning experience, however, I consider my years as an English student formative because I use the skills I learned in the classroom (the ones I mentioned way back there in the first paragraph) in every one of my activities, often all at once, including:

  • creative and critical thinking and the ability to see multiple sides of a problem;
  • research and analysis skills;
  • clear and passionate communication, both verbal and in writing;
  • the skills to facilitate critical conversations among a diverse group of people;
  • the ability to empathize with—and so relate to, converse, and work with—other “characters.”

I hope you’ve heard this before, but if so, I don’t mind chiming in: in short, my English major—the excellent professors, the classmates, the reading and writing—helped me learn how to think.  I’m not sure I could have acquired a skill more “useful,” in my work and in my life, than that.