The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

***

Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

MLK

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!

Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

JennieCase_BreadLoaf.jpg

What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Kyle Simonsen on My Favorite Essay to Teach: Susan Orlean’s “Meet the Shaggs”

Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.

I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.

theshaggs-potw

Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”

Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”

What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.

Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.

Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.

The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.

[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]

***

kyleprofilephotoKyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, Opium Magazine, and Rain Taxi, among others.

Topic – Resource List: Diversity / Difference / Power in the Writing Classroom

blue flowerIn the Creative Writing Pedagogy group, which is on Facebook, Rebecca Makkal asked the following question: “I’m looking for great essays (preferably online, assignable to graduate students) about diversity/difference/power in the writing classroom. Ideas?”

Many thanks to the following people who posted links to the following pieces in the discussion thread: Karen Babine, Don Hosek, Anna Leahy, Bich Minh Nguyen, DeMisty Philosopiae, James Ryan, Jennifer Solheim, and Ned Stuckey-French.

If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment, and I’ll add the link to the list.

— Here is a broad, recent look at many interwoven issues:

https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/the-program-era-and-the-mainly-white-room

— “Workshop is Not For You, by Jeremiah Chamberlin: The Proper Care and Feeding of Writers”. Originally published at Glimmer Train, it is no longer available at the University of Oregon blog link… if you find a link to this piece, please let us know.

— The book Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, edited by Anna Leahy. Two chapters deal with grading, plus other topics related to power.

— Bernice M. Olivas: “Politics of Identity in the Essay Tradition,” published in Assay 2.1. See more here.

— “MFA vs. POC” by Junot Diaz. Available at The New Yorker here.

— Matthew Salesses has great recent work about this subject: “‘The Reader’ vs. POC” http://gulfcoastmag.org/online/fall-2015/the-reader-vs-poc/

Pleiades has an excellent four part series on rethinking the workshop. Here is part one: “Pure Craft is a Lie” http://www.pleiadesmag.com/pure-craft-is-a-lie-part-1/. Here’s the fourth in the series (you can also access the other posts through this link): Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be?

— “Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course by Joy Castro” can be found here: http://gulfcoastmag.org/online/fall-2015/racial-and-ethnic-justice-in-the-creative-writing-course/

— Vida’s “Report from the Field: Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop” can be found here: http://www.vidaweb.org/report-from-the-field-racial-invisibility-and-erasure-in-the-writing-workshop/

— Find excellent resources at the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, including David Mura’s “White Writing Teachers (or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin)” and Tonya Hegamin‘s “Diversity and Inclusion: A Manifesto and Interview.” Both address issues of difference, and Mura’s piece speaks directly about what is required for white writing teachers to appropriately evaluate work by students of color.

 

R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.

images

I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:

SWARMING

 

Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly

 

back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling

 

wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel

 

all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath

 

breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.

***

W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com

Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Creighton Nicholas Brown — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

Every spring semester that I teach English 203: Exploring the World, I look forward to the day when my students begin discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. While not definitionally an essay, Kincaid’s slim 81-page memoir (or travelogue? or jeremiad?) is the shortest text I teach in a course using contemporary nonfiction travel writing to explore postcolonialism, social and environmental justice, and issues of gender in the global South.

Kincaid

My students arrive to class having been confronted—without warning from me—with Kincaid’s categorical rage and pinned under a relentless gaze constructed skillfully through her repetition of you. Kincaid lands my students in Antigua and regularly reminds them, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.” We spend much of the first of two class days working through both Kincaid’s rage and my students’ deeply personal reactions to her castigation of Western tourists.

Of particular interest for me on our first day with A Small Place is the transition in class discussion from discounting Kincaid’s scathing observational claims about her readers to a conversation considering whether such anger can be productive. This conversation is bumpy with some students arguing her outrage does not merit her description of them as “incredibly unattractive, fat, pastry-like,” and others positing that Kincaid’s indignation grabs her readers’ faces and forces them to look at, to see, to witness the over 500-year history of Western barbarity on this twelve by nine-mile-wide island. These students—those arguing for the productivity of anger—begin to cite passages linking the slave trade to Antigua’s Hotel Training School and to the discourse of tourism, which positions us to discuss contemporary imperial discourses and institutions during the next class meeting.

We leave our first class devoted to A Small Place reflecting on Kincaid’s stark observation on the development of capitalism. She asks her readers, my students, “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists.”

What I like most about A Small Place—in addition to her profound rage, despair, and unanticipated hope—is watching as Kincaid carefully maps historical and contemporary imperial discourses and institutions onto this small island. As she guides us through the streets of St. Johns, she catalogs institutions such as the bank that once traded in human capital and now lends the descendants of those slaves funds or the hospital that government ministers avoid. But the most striking example of Kincaid’s discursive cartography is her genealogy of the Hotel Training School.

We spend much of the first half of our second day explicating Kincaid’s claim that the Hotel Training School, which produces hospitality workers for the many hotels lining Antigua’s beaches, resulted from slavery and emancipation. She remarks, “In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School (graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television).” This is a challenging discussion for my students. Initially, they seem to react with the same frustration they felt on the first day, but as we closely read the text, my students realize they’re collectively feeling despair with the systemic injustice built into this one industry in Antigua, which they realize can be translated onto other metonymically small places. This is why I love to teach A Small Place: it is in this moment when my students stop resisting Kincaid’s acerbity and begin to empathically engage with her humanity.

I devote the second half of our second day with A Small Place to explicating Kincaid’s conclusion—both as the moment we witness her rage and despair dissolve into cautious hope and as a model for my students’ conclusions in their own writing. Line by line we determine the purpose of each sentence and observe that Kincaid concisely contextualized and summarizes her thesis, makes a provocative insight, and concludes with the broader implications of her project:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

If I’ve planned my course schedule correctly, the two days we dedicate to discussing A Small Place are sandwiched between Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes and spring break. My students leave for Gulf Shores, Cancún, or Saint Kitts having grappled with Kincaid’s justified rage, despair, and hope-filled plea, and having investigated a network of contemporary imperial discourses.

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BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate and Emmy-winner at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he is working on his dissertation, which is titled (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. His research interests include contemporary literature of the global South, postcolonial theory, life writing, and ecocriticism. His most recent publications are “The Hunger: The Power and Politics of a (Post)Colonial Cannibal,” which appeared in Diasporic Identities and Empire: Cultural Contentions and Literary Landscapes, and “Dracula’s Colonized Tongue Speaks through Fanged Teeth.”

Writers to Read: On Compression by Taylor Brorby

As Polonius reminds us in Hamlet, “brevity is the soul of wit.” But when dealing with geological time, this might seem oxymoronic. When reading about earth’s time periods millennia need dozens, if not hundreds, of pages—and let’s not even begin to discuss the amount of pulp needed to begin writing about millions of years. Yet compression seems to be the best ingredient in Barbara Hurd’s compact 712 word essay, “Fracking: A Fable.”

Hurd’s lush and vivid language put Earth’s time into human language:

“Rain fell for centuries, and millions of years after that, the ancient Appalachian Basin just west of what is now the East Coast spent even more millennia becoming a sprawling, shallow bowl. And then nothing much happened. Another million years passed.”

Hurd takes our understanding of time and, like rolling a piece of play-doh, condenses it and presses it smaller. Millions of years are rendered in short sentences. With a flick of a phrase, time—time beyond human understand or concept—is whisked away:

“More tens of thousands of centuries passed while the water sloshed and the undersea mud thickened, and in all that time, no human ever stood on its shores, no blue crab ever scurried in the ooze.   There were no witnesses. And even if there had been, who could have stood the boredom of watching that slow, barely breathing world?”

What many readers might consider monumental in Earth’s history, Hurd renders in pithy sentences: “A few continents collided, some peaks rose, some valleys sank.” No big deal. And part of the reason the movement of time is no big deal in Hurd’s piece is that the main focus is on the precious energy source our lives depend upon: oil. Hurd’s piece is not strident, doesn’t chastise, and is not what we might call typical “activist” writing. Yet there is a lurking concern in her layered approach—subtly, Hurd urges the reader to think of time, what the scale of time looks like—the reader might dig deeper to understand how humans have manipulated Earth’s processes for our own benefit, our own dominance.

Halfway through the essay, Hurd’s pacing shifts. The sentences pick up tempo, and we start to blaze across the page at lightning speed. Look at this:

“We developed with lightning speed—geologically speaking—our brains and vision and hands, our fast and furious tools, our drills and ingenuity, and all the while that ooze-become-rock lay locked and impenetrable, deep in the earth, farther than anything, including anyone’s imagination, reached, until in the split second that is humankind’s history on this planet we pushed a drill with a downhole mud-motor a mile deep and made it turn sideways and snaked it into that ancient rock speckled with evidence of another eon, and a few minutes later we detonated small explosives and blasted millions of gallons of slick water—sand and water and a bit of biocide in case anything was alive down there—into what hadn’t seen water or light for four hundred million years.”

One sentence. Compression does not necessarily mean short sentences; it can also mean rapid, quick-moving, and lucid thinking—this, undoubtedly is one of the hallmarks of Hurd’s piece (which writers might also turn to for vivid language, rich imagery, or the play of mind-bending concepts of time). In this way, Hurd mimics the geological compression throughout Earth’s history. The writing condenses, is layered, and has staying power like a geological period.

By the end of the essay Hurd alludes to the risks of fracking—not by commentating on spills or radioactive material—but through our understanding of story:

“And when the slick water was withdrawn from the fissures and small slither-spaces and that prehistoric bedrock was lickety-split forever changed, no one could predict the impact, not even we inventive humans whose arrival on this planet is so recent, whose footprints, so conspicuous and large, often obliterate cautionary tales.”

Eventually, Hurd’s sentences do shorten. Her final two paragraphs are each single sentences: “And soon the unpredictable, as always, occurred.” Disaster? Biocide? The reader’s mind is left to its own devices. “And now, in no time at all, not everything takes forever any longer.” The reader, pushed along a continuum of time, now understands just how quickly we inventive humans have compressed the timescale of the world.

Like a smooth river stone, Barbara Hurd’s “Fracking: A Fable” is smooth and round, something to carry in your pocket, pull out, examine. It is bedrock. Enjoy the language, the imagery, but enjoy too its precision, it’s compression. After all, it speaks to a practice that places us and the future of ecology in peril.

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ContributScreen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMing Editor Taylor Brorby is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, he is currently working on a poetry collection related to the Bakken oil boom, as well as an essay collection and editing an anthology of creative writing on fracking, “Fracture,” for Ice Cube Press, due out this winter. Taylor is a regular contributor to Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, and he is the book review editor at Orion Magazine.

Writers to Read by Jois Child: Wide-eyed, a Little Breathless, and Falling Slowly Earthward

That’s how I felt the first time I jumped out of an airplane. And that’s how I feel reading James Agee’s sentences.

It is July, 1936. Young Jim Agee and Walker Evans are on assignment from Fortune magazine to document the lives of white tenant farmers (sharecroppers) in Alabama. They hardly know how they will do this, these northern, urban strangers. Evans will take the photographs, but Agee struggles with the words that will eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.

But he can’t give us those things, so he writes hundreds of pages that read like a symphony and unfold like scenes from a motion picture.

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One of the first incidents Agee describes is being taken by white landowners to a tenant farmer’s house. In the telling of it, Agee’s lyricism interweaves the particular moment, the social history, and the dilemma of the outside observer:

A quarter of a mile back in a flat field of short cotton a grove of oaks spumed up and a house stood in their shade. . . . We drew up in the oak shade as the doors of this house filled. They were Negroes. . . . Here at the foreman’s home we had caused an interruption that filled me with regret: relatives were here from a distance, middle-aged and sober people in their Sunday clothes, and three or four visiting children, and I realized that they had been quietly enjoying themselves, the men out at the far side of the house, the women getting dinner, as now, by our arrival, they no longer could [emphasis mine].

The sparse, layered details of the scene (Sunday clothes, the far side of the house, getting dinner) are interwoven with the words of the strangers’ interruptions at crucial junctures, so that the word “realized” occurs between the introduction of the visitors and the description of their interrupted activities, and the word “arrival” appears where it will interrupt the getting of dinner as well as the general enjoyment of the afternoon.

The general feeling “regret,” becomes the realization of the situation – the Sunday ease, free from white outsiders – and then the final powerlessness to undo any of the harm: “now… they no longer could.” This single sentence structure carries not only the immediate and particular situation, but calls out and illustrates the overwhelming social codes in which Agee finds himself confined.

But the body of the book is about the lives of three white sharecropper families, told in such complex detail, so finely nuanced, that the sentences grow and grow in parenthetical and semi-coloned clauses, as here in a list of the particular qualities of several of these people at work:

the infants of three families, staggering happily, their hats held full of freshly picked cotton; the Ricketts children like delirious fawns and panthers; and secret Pearl with her wicked skin; Louise, lifting herself to rest her back, the heavy sack trailing, her eyes on you; Junior, jealous and lazy, malingering, his fingers sore; . . . Annie Mae at twenty-seven, in her angular sweeping, every motion a wonder to watch; . . . Mrs. Ricketts, in that time of morning when from the corn she reels into the green roaring gloom of her home, falls into a chair with gaspings which are almost sobs, and dries in her lifted skirt her delicate and reeking head; Miss Molly chopping wood as if in each blow of the axe she held captured in focus the vengeance of all time….

Reading such comprehensive sentences is a little like falling slowly earthward. One cannot read them fast. They require slowing down, breathing evenly, letting the colors and the weariness, the heat and the never-ending-ness fill the wholeness of life in this place and time.

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Jois Child writes and reads manuscripts from a tiny patch of forest in North Idaho. Her work has appeared in The Sierra Sun, High Desert Journal, and Women Owning Woodlands.