Women Writing Lives: Pedagogy in the Archives

In the fall of 2017, I started teaching a new class. Women Writing Lives would examine a diverse selection of 20th– and 21st-century texts of women’s literary nonfiction, including radio diaries, published journals, finely wrought memoirs, essays, and – most ambitiously (from a pedagogical standpoint) – unpublished archival materials. Questions I posed in my syllabus included:

  • How do women write their lives and why?
  • What can we discern or discovers literariness of nonfiction and life-writing of all kinds?
  • What is the difference between public and private writing? Should we read these differently, and if so, then why and how?

The writing-intensive class comprised twenty students. We kicked off the semester by listening to a teenaged girl’s radio diary from the 1990s. Amanda told her coming out story and professed her love for her girlfriend in a thick Brooklyn accent. As we listened, the class marvelled at Amanda’s frankness, courage, and vulnerability in the telling of her life. We talked about editing, about narrative arcs, and whether or not this radio diary might consitute an essay or something else.

In the weeks that followed, Alice Walker’s essay, “Looking for Zora,” showed us how writers are detectives. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own demonstrated how women’s social history has determined women’s literary history and our writerly legacies. Reading Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness beside Sylvia Plath’s Journals showed us the power of editing, retrospection, and how diaries differ from memoirs. Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder took their breath away as did Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” Students shared their own examples of life-writing, wrote short analyses of the books we read, and experimented by producing bold new texts of their own in the form of diary entries or letters. Finally, having looked at women’s life-writing from all angles, we were ready to go into the archives.

The summer before the class, I spent a few days exploring the Missouri State Historical Society’s collections. For a while, I considered having the class read a homesteader’s diary and letter collection. I then sat with letters written by a female anarchist imprisoned in St. Louis, which were fascinating but somehow not right for the task at hand. In the end, I settled on the extensive collection of a Vietnam War correspondent, Ann Bryan Mariano McKay (1932-2009). McKay’s papers contained love letters to and from Frank Mariano who became her husband, adoption and immigration papers for the two orphaned Vietnamese girls who became her daughters, newspaper clippings, the daughters’ writings as they grew, snippets of memoir about the war, and (devastatingly) the records of the deaths of one of the daughters to cancer and of Frank to cardiac arrest. I found the collection utterly engrossing and deeply moving. I suspected my students would too. By way of background, I distributed a memoir-essay called “Vietnam Is Where I Found My Family” that McKay had contributed to the anthology, War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. This prepared the class for the three days we would spend in the archive.

4009 f  515 - Ann in OW office Saigon c  1967.jpgThe trick to pedagogy in the archives is not to overwhelm with too much material and not to set students loose on the collections without guidance. For successful teaching in the archives, instructors must provide structure, limits, and clear instructions. With all this in mind, I pulled together three photocopied packages for my students: one told the story of Ann’s life in the form of her letters and clippings; a second that told the story of Frank through letters and legal documents; and a third that told the story of Ann’s daughters, also through letters and official papers. I broke the class into three groups. Each received only a portion of the archive, that is, either Ann’s, Frank’s, or the daughters’ materials. Students then completed an assignment based on their particular portion of the archive. In addition to the photocopied packages (one per student), I invited the class to examine the original materials.

Over the three days in the archives, students completed the following assignment.

1) Describe your materials:

  • What is in the collection?
  • Who is the author of the collection?
  • Describer the physical characteristics of your materials. What is the paper like? Color, texture? Is it a typescript or manuscript? Is it original or a photocopy?
  • What year was it produced? Or over what time period?
  • How old was the author of these materials?

Once you have observed the materials and answered these and any other questions that come to mind, write a paragraph describing them.

2) What can you deduce from your materials? What do you know for sure?

  • Where are they from?
  • What do they tell you about their author? About her or his class, profession, life experience?
  • What story do these materials tell?

Once you have answered these questions and sat with your materials long enough to understand something about them, write a paragraph that starts: “These materials tell the story of…”

3) What questions have these materials raised for you? What more would you like to know?

  • Write a paragraph musing on the unanswered questions you have. You may list your questions but you can also speculate as to what you think the answers to these questions might be. Use your imagination.

Once they had completed and submitted the assignment, students wrote a reflection of their time in the archive:

Write a paragraph describing what you did in the archives. Be sure to include any thoughts about:

  • What you learned in this process of working with archival materials.
  • What you might want to do if you had more time to go deeper in this research.
  • What surprised you most over the past three classes.

Upon reconvening in our classroom after our archive days, we shared our newfound knowledge. Impressions from the students included:

  • “These materials have been very interesting to sift through and work with, but it has been very hard for me to come up with a cohesive timeline of [Ann’s] stories and experiences. Like mentioned in class, working with archives is somewhat like detective work trying to piece everything together.”
  • “Ann and her daughter [Mai]…used letter-writing almost exclusively as a means to talk about their problems, which meant that pretty much the entire story was there in front of me. In all honesty, that was really cool for me.…This was especially interesting to me as the letters were written in the 1980s, especially 1989. How strange yet enticing that their language and ideas can resonate with me, almost twenty years later.”
  • “Reading ​​only ​​from ​​Frank’s ​​perspective​​ gives​​ me ​​a​​ strong​​ urge ​​to ​​read ​​Ann’s ​​letters and to see​​ her ​​reaction ​​to​​ his​​ affection. ​​There ​​is ​​a​​ particular​​ letter​​ where​​ Frank​​ apologizes ​​for ​​fighting with ​​Ann​​ while ​​they ​​are ​​visiting ​​each ​​other, ​​and ​​he​​ never​​ mentions ​​why, ​​but​​ I ​​wonder​​ what exactly ​​they ​​were ​​fighting ​​about.​”
  • “There were so many folders filled with years and years of stories, so I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took to gather and sort [them]. To be honest, the thought of looking through the archives of strangers sounded a bit boring to begin with, but after spending time flipping through the archives, I was so sad to leave. I think it would be very interesting to see someone start the process of grouping these materials together to create a story of someone’s entire life.”

Each group had learned a single fragment of the story of this collection and of this family. Each group, in turn, led the rest of the class through their portion. By comparing notes and complementing their peers’ discoveries, together the students created something resembling a whole.

Once we’d completed the entire exercise, we compiled a list of what our time with Ann Bryan Mariano McKay’s papers had allowed us to see and experience either more clearly than before or perhaps even for the first time. Here’s that list.

Our time in the archives allowed us to think about

  • how and why we record our lives and what we leave behind.
  • how even the smallest, most ordinary life may contain great beauty, tragedy, and wisdom.
  • how archival research is fun, fascinating, and challenging.
  • how a single life (Ann’s) contains the stories of many other lives (Frank’s, the daughters’) within it.
  • how not everything can be found on the Internet.
  • how people who lived long ago (20 years or more!), and whom we imagine as old-fashioned or dusty, are more recognizable to us than we think.
  • how our own private writing practices and creative processes might actually matter and have artistic or historical value.
  • how we too, with our small little lives, also have the right to tell and record our stories.

It was a deep pleasure to watch my students learn before my very eyes, witness them discover the thrill of archival research, and observe them fall in love with a family they had never met and to whom they had no connections other than the ones they were building in their imaginations. Truth be told, even I was surprised at how deeply and profoundly attached they became to our archival subjects. As the class filed out of the reading room on our last day of work there, I was alarmed to see tears streaming down the cheeks of one of my more taciturn students. When I asked her what was wrong, she sighed and gestured to the materials on the table. “It’s just so sad,” she said. “Beautiful, but sad.”

Note: Thanks to the University of Missouri’s Campus Writing Program for granting me a Writing Intensive Project Award so that I could take the time I needed to develop this course. Thanks also to John Konzal and the other archivists at the State Historical Society of Missouri for welcoming my class and letting us take over the reading room for three days. For more on Ann Bryan Mariano McKay, you can read her obituary here. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-ann-bryan-mariano9-2009mar09-story.html


Senior Editor Julija Šukys is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile), one book-length translation (And I burned with shame), and of more than two dozen essays. Šukys draws on archives, interviews, bibliographical research, and observation to write about minor lives in war-torn or marginal places, about women’s life-writing, and about the legacy of violence across generations and national borders.

 

Karen Babine on Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song

71o4jdlrsilJoan Didion writes in her 7 October 1979 New York Times review of The Executioner’s Song that “No one but Mailer could have dared this book.” Crafting real life as a novel was certainly a form seeing different forms during this time, especially in the crime genre, but I find myself less interested in the subject matter–or even the emerging world of the nonfiction novel–but I’m interested in Mailer’s sentencing, because I as a writer I am always drawn to sentences, to the point where that person can write a sentence! is the highest compliment I can give. It’s worth mentioning that I am not a fan of Mailer, but I’ll get to that later.

The short, declarative sentences are the most obvious on a first read. The crafting of the very first paragraph sets a very straightforward, almost bored, tone with the subject-verb construction, landing like punches every time a period breaks the flow: “Brenda was six when she fell out of the apple tree. She climbed to the top and the limb with the good apples broke off. Gary caught her as the branch came scraping down. They were scared” (17). The effect of starting the book with these sentence constructions and the tone it evokes is a trust in the writer not to editorialize, that the writer will simply tell things as they were. I’ve spent some time with my students this semester talking through Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style, which considers punctuation from the standpoint of a writer and the effect on readers that certain uses of periods, etc. have. For all that I despise Mailer as a failed human being, the man is a god of sentences. With these short sentences that almost have a staccato sound to them, I’m remembering that what struck me most about Armies of the Night was his extraordinarily long sentences—so that the sentences here are rather short is a point of comparison that merits further scrutiny. At another time. (On a separate note that is not sentence-related, the white space between paragraphs also serves to create this disjointed, fragmented, start-stop effect on the reader.)

The way the sentences are constructed vary from character to character: where Gary, Vern, Ida, Brenda, or McGrath might have very short sentences (for instance: “That got to Spencer. Gilmore had never told a soul. Such pride was the makings of decent stuff. McGrath made sure he had a ride home that night” (71)), when Mailer is in the voice and head of someone like Noall Wootten, the sentences lengthen, as if to denote more thought, more education: “He had made up his mind to go for Death after looking at Gilmore’s record. It showed violence in prison, a history of escape, and unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation. Wootten could only conclude that, one: Gilmore would be looking to escape; two: he would be a hazard to other inmates and guards; and, three: rehabilitation would be hopeless” (304). Nothing Mailer does, on the sentence-level is accidental, so that he included a list that includes colons, as well as commas, signals a definite shift that echoes the voice of Wootten’s character not visible any other way. I have met people who speak in colons (the mystery writer William Kent Krueger, for one) and I wonder if Wootten is also one of those. Cahoon’s voice in the Utah jail was constructed by eliminating many of the subjects from the sentences: “Cahoon noticed that soon as he shut the bars, they started a conversation in jail talk. It was that gibberish talk. Use a word like figger to say nigger. Show the other fellow how many years you put in by carrying on a whole conversation” (352).

Another example of this varied sentencing: after Gary’s execution, Larry Schiller views the execution site: “His description of the events had been accurate in every way but one. He had gotten the colors wrong. The black cloth of the blind was not black but blue, the line on the floor was not yellow but white, and the chair was not black, but dark green. He realized that during the execution something had altered in his perception of color” (963). What’s interesting here is that all of the post-execution description happens in terms of the five senses. After the shots are fired, the reader only hears the drip of blood. And then with Schiller’s descriptions—and wrong descriptions—the reader understands the way the colors were viewed. The effect is both content-rich and craft-specific, because how else are the readers going to be able to understand the realities of an execution they did not witness?

Voice and tone is constructed in other ways beyond the actual sentencing and crafting that Mailer did. The addition of Gary’s letters, the transcripts of various court moments, the inclusion of news articles—these all complete the conversation that swirled around and through these series of events. It’s not enough simply to interview the people who knew Gary and lived through this time, because given the way this case unfolded and how many people paid attention to it as it was happening, those voices also add to the cacophony that made this case even more incredible. The level of detail that Mailer was able to corral and use—and not have the narrative be overwhelmed by the voices. In some places they served the purpose of breathing space for the reader, before we jumped back into the arc of the narrative. The reader knows this is coming, that people will be murdered, and that Gary will be executed—but what the reader does not know, what the reader cannot know, is how that will unfold and how this book is about the people involved and how it fits into the Western mythology of this place. It is a good reminder that what drives good nonfiction cannot be plot. In that sense, this book is not about Gary and the execution at all.

I hope I’m able to communicate to my students how it’s possible to dislike a book and be very glad you read it. Cormac McCarthy is one of those for me. Mailer is growing on me, just because I’ve learned more about how sentences function than I have from few other writers. We read Annie Dillard’s “Write Until You Drop.” She writes, “A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’” I adore sentences. Worship at their wordy little altars. Rave and rage at what we’re reading in my classes, what my students write, and teach them to pay attention to what could be their greatest weapon. And greatest joy. Oh, Norman Mailer. I still don’t like you. But I don’t need to like you to want to know how you do what you do.


KarenBabine

Karen Babine is Assay‘s editor.

Christine Cusick–Reflections on Teaching

In 2017, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Parker J. Palmer’s provocative book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life in which he eloquently reminds us that teaching is a mutually transformative act, one that requires self reflection and courage. Teaching is an act of hope, an act that demands courage because no matter how we might try to distance ourselves from its formulas, it is inevitably a surrendering to the embrace of the imagination and the heart.

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Cythnia Ozick offers us a similar insight when reflecting on the act of putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, as one might. She writes that “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” I think often about these lines, sometimes printing them at the top of my syllabi, sometimes whispering them to myself when I face my own blank page and simply cannot muster the coherence I long for. Even after more than a decade in the writing classroom, most often encountering first year students who bring a bit of trepidation to the world of academic writing, I sometimes feel that I am only beginning to effectively enter into this confluence of courage that is the writing classroom. And it has, as most authentic learning experiences do, invited me into an embrace of my own vulnerabilities and uncertainties.

Nancy Sommers’s essay, “I Stand Here Writing” was originally published in an academic journal, College Writing, and yet it is a compelling example of how genres are never authentic vacuums, that the notion that we can sever our personal selves from the act of putting words down, and I would add, entering the space of a classroom, is indeed grounded on false pretense. What is brilliant about this essay is that it enacts the very argument that it articulates. It eloquently curates the author’s family history against her own educational history, invoking canonical giants like Emerson while making just as strong a case for the textual power of a daughter’s refrigerator hieroglyphics and a mother’s four-leaf clovers in a greeting card. For a first year student who is often negotiating how and why she will have a place in the mysterious world of the academic essay, Nancy Sommers’s essay reminds her that she has always had a voice, has been sustained by multiple forms of texts, and that a writing life happens well beyond the page.

The essay begins by anchoring the reader to her senses: “I stand in my kitchen, wiping the cardamom, coriander, and cayenne off my fingers. My head is abuzz with words, with bits and pieces of conversation.” I open a class discussion with this line, asking students what they know of these spices, how it could be that the work of writing happens above a steaming pot heated by the fire of a kitchen stove. One student tells me she immediately connected to this because the scent of cardamom reminds her of her father’s morning mug of chai, aromas of his home. Another student pauses and asks if this is sort of like figuring out a paper idea on the cross-country trail? And we are off to work through a philosophically astute engagement with questions of language, cultural history, and human imperfection. But it is also an essay about the cost of a writing life, about the risks of the unknown. In the same opening lines that create an image of fingers stained not with ink but with the vibrant colors of fiery spices, the author is grappling with her memory of a line about the radical loss of certainty, a theme that ripples as an undercurrent throughout the essay.

I bring this essay to students because it reminds them that there is context to how they relate to words, to learning, to themselves, that even an academic such as Sommers, brings a process to uncovering what she has to say and how she will say it. Our relationship with ideas has a history that ebbs and flows with time and that sometimes in looking for answers we might be missing the point. In so doing, the essay invites students into research as an unpredictable act of curiosity: “I know that I can walk into text after text, source after source, and they will give me insight, but not answers. I have learned too that my sources can surprise me.” Each time I teach this essay, it strikes me that Sommers’s description of research could as easily have been of the pedagogical impulse, one steeped in past lives and open to surprises.

At its core, this essay is about how writing and research happen, though it doesn’t try to lull students into the delusions that there is some mysterious formula that will yield the same result for each of us. What it offers students is a sense of agency as writers, as researchers. Sommers writes:

“If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to seem themselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced—the dictionaries of their lives—circulating through them.”

In these lines she grants students the permission for ambiguity, and in fact argues for the necessity of their uncertainty in moving toward the creation of meaning, of bringing the “dictionaries of their lives” to an audience. By bringing this essay, one likely created for an academic audience of writing scholars, to an undergraduate classroom, I can begin a conversation with them about how their stories matter, about how sometimes we have to navigate the personal to create meaning from the academic. Sommers writes: “Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretations to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays.” This can be a liberating piece of knowledge for an undergraduate writing student, to think that there is a place for their voice in the conversation of ideas and that in grappling with what this will mean for themselves they are a part of a larger human experience of listening for their words.

If I am honest, I love teaching this essay because of what it reveals for my students, but also because of how it sustains me.

“With writing and with teaching, as well as with love, we don’t know how the sentence will begin and, rarely ever, how it will end. Having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt, we can walk into all of those fields of writing, knowing that we will find volumes upon volumes bidding us enter.”

I return to Sommers’s eloquent lines on days when I pause at the classroom door, unsure if I have anything to offer my students, when I close my eyes to the sight of a blank screen, when I am in need of an invitation, of a voice to remind me that it is in entering into the ambiguous dance of teaching/writing that we find one another: teacher, student, writer, human.

Works Cited

Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (20th Edition), 2017.

Sommers, Nance. “I Stand Here Writing” College English, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Apr., 1993), pp. 420-428. [Find Sommers’s essay online, here.]

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IMG_1984Christine Cusick lives in the foothills of the Laurel Highland mountains of western Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the intersections of ecology, story, and memory. She has published numerous ecocritical studies of contemporary literature and has been nationally recognized for creative nonfiction. Her most recent book is a coedited essay collection, Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment. She is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Seton Hill University.

 

Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

* * *

My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

* * *

[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

* * *

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! At Assay, we’ve expanded members of our team to include senior editors and contributing editors. Welcome to our new Contributing Editors: Creighton Nicholas Brown, who has also taken over my duties as Social Media Editor (thank you!); Jennifer M. Dean; Micah McCrary; and welcome back to Taylor Brorby. We also welcome our new Senior Editors, who will be reading submissions to the main journal: Christine Cusick; Jenny Spinner; and Julija Šukys. Please take a look at our expanded group over at our masthead.

This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” Look for columns from members of our expanded team. Next week, I’m excited to share with you Contributing Editor/Social Media Editor Creighton Nicholas Brown’s column “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.” This will be followed by a two-part interview/essay from Genia Blum reporting back from the NFNOW17 conference this past June in Iceland. At the end of the month, we’ll feature Colin Hosten’s “Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipau.”

We’re always looking for submissions to our “In the Classroom” series and to our main journal. While our focus is nonfiction, we’d love to hear about interdisciplinary approaches to writing. Or perhaps you’re primarily a poet and poetry teacher/writer, but you have a favorite essay you read and teach. We’d love to read about it.

Here are our general guidelines for teachers and writers for “In the Classroom” submissions:

intheclassroomassayguidelines

You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

You can submit via our spiffy Submittable page here.

We would love to feature undergraduate and graduate writers. As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or imageresponse papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already and in the past. Please keep them coming. If there is something we can provide to support your reading, writing, and teaching, please let us know.

Remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal.

With gratitude,

Renée

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Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s essay collection Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. www.reneedaoust.com

Listicle: Resources for Teaching Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

I visited several creative writing courses last week, and Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” was mentioned several times.

  • Find the original essay, published in The New Yorker, here.

Here are some resources for teaching and reading this essay:

  • Find Lynn Kilpatrick’s piece for Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, here.
  • Sarah M. Wells’ article, “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection: Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth” (on the entire book), here.
  • Find Ned Stuckey-French’s commentary on the author, the essay’s form and context, including additional reading resources, here.
  • Find Jill Christman’s reflections in Essay Daily, including classroom exercises, here

If you have other resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Thank you!

-Renée

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

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In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

CFP: The Nonfiction of Social Justice

imageWriters: we have work to do.

This week in the wake of our election’s results, the Assay staff decided that while we would still like to have a focus on Best American Essays in our spring issue (to continue our celebration of BAE’s 30th anniversary), we would like to fill our pages with the nonfiction of social justice. We’re looking for full scholarly articles, we’re looking for informal analysis, we’re looking for pedagogy of all sorts, the incredible variety of forms that Assay likes best. We’re looking for the voices we need now, more than ever.

Who are the writers of color we need to read (and teach), now more than ever?

The LGBTQ writers we need, now more than ever?

The environmental writers, as we struggle against the future incarnations of the EPA? Who are the other voices about to be marginalized even further?

What are the particular texts, the individual essays, the full-length books? What lesson plans have you developed? Perhaps an explication of a nonfiction assignment? What did you read with your students this week when you tossed out your original plan?

Assay’s spring issue comes out in March, a few weeks after AWP in Washington, DC, which is a few weeks after Inauguration Day. In the face of feeling helpless and powerless, putting our words into the world to support each other is our best way of moving forward.

Our deadline is January 1, though we are actively reading now. You will find our submission guidelines here.

Please share this call widely with your colleagues and students.

Writers: We have work to do.

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Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” While our focus is nonfiction, we’d love to hear about interdisciplinary approaches to writing. Or perhaps you’re primarily a poet and poetry teacher/writer, but you have a favorite essay you read and teach. We’d love to read about it.

Here are our guidelines for “In the Classroom” submissions:

intheclassroomassayguidelines

You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or imageresponse papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

Here’s the link to our most recent journal release — Assay 3.1. Be sure to read Karen Babine’s and Robert Atwan’s conversation about Best American Essays. We’re grateful for Mr. Atwan’s contributions to the essay and his generous responses to Karen’s interview questions.

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Finally, we’re so proud to announce our first “Notable” essay listing in Best American Essays 2016. Huge congratulations to Ned Stuckey-French for “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” I frequently use this essay in my courses; I hope you will, too.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already. Please keep them coming. And remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal, particularly work this year on the Best American Essays series.

With gratitude,

Renée

***

Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s essay collection Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. www.reneedaoust.com

Assay’s Academic Year 2015-2016 Annual Report

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We’ve had a great academic year here at Assay. Thank you, all, for your contributions, for reading the journal, and for your support.

hipstamaticphoto-479148500.856242Next year, we’re looking forward to a journal focus on Best American Essays. A few of our questions: How do we conceive of BAE as the standard for our genre? How have the editors and/or contributors influenced the field? What pedagogical considerations do we have when we use BAE in the classroom? Essay Daily ran a fascinating series on BAE this past winter; if you have not seen those pieces, it’s well worth your time. Please find Assay’s call for BAE-focused submissions here. We continue to consider all submissions, and you can find our regular submission guidelines here. As always, if you have questions, send us an email. We’ll continue reading over the summer.

This past year, our main journal published a fall and spring issue: Assay 2.1 and Assay 2.2. We also published a Special Conference Issue featuring panel talks from NonfictioNOW, AWP, and ASLE.

During the NonfictioNOW (#NFNOW15) conference last fall, we published ongoing conference reports. We also published conference reports from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference (#cnfwc16). Many thanks for these contributions, which make it possible for those unable to attend to learn, too. When you attend a conference, please consider writing up a panel / reading / workshop report for our “In the Classroom” series.

Our ongoing “In the Classroom” series continues to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This past year we were also super pleased to feature student travel-writer Lauren Wilson’s contributions.

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or response papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

On a more personal note, this was my first year as Managing Editor at Assay. I’m thrilled to be part of our team, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think more deeply about the pedagogical aspects of our field and to explore how we craft nonfiction. Thank you to our Board of Directors for their insights and support. Thank you to our readers and contributors for their enthusiasm and support. And a very special thank you to Editor Karen Babine for inviting me to join Assay.

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Tootsie.

We’re looking forward to next year! Assay’s fall issue will release September 1st. Our “In the Classroom” series will continue on October 3, 2016.

Here’s to a great summer of reading and writing. I’m off to cuddle my Tube of Fur.

With gratitude,