April 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Something startles me where I thought I was safest”
Walt Whitman, “This Compost”
It is exciting to be a professor of English right now: for the archive of materials we use in our professional lives has undergone (and is undergoing) fundamental and lasting change. The conditions for literary production and reception are being radically transformed and the work of teaching and research are, as a result, changing. While scholars will necessarily travel to libraries for research, scholars and their students now have access to (and, in a number of cases, are building) an expanding archive of materials that were only a decade ago only available to those with the resources and time to travel to research libraries or to more modest holdings in public or private collections.
For a decade my students and I have been using the Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic library of written materials, including the six editions of Whitman’s major work, Leaves of Grass. The archive makes accessible Whitman’s notebooks, manuscript fragments, prose essays, letters, and journalism, as well as the ongoing historical and critical commentary on his work. So, for example, my students can access all the volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden and we can easily call up page images of Leaves of Grass Imprints in class. Students reading in the historical commentary on Whitman’s writings and current criticism, moreover, now have access to electronic versions of essays and more than twenty full-length books. The co-editors of the site, Kenneth M. Price (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Ed Folsom (University of Iowa), have created a beautiful thing.
Also, in my American Studies courses, the Library of Congress web portal that supports the Library’s mission “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people” has helped my students do much more interesting work with a greater range of materials and artifacts. Finally, my colleague at the University of New Hampshire, Siobhan Senier, is building a digital archive/anthology of materials, Writing of Indigenous New England, with the help of students, tribal historians, and local historical societies. you can learn more about this work at Siobhan’s Indigenous New England Literature site.
Then, this year, I became aware of two new projects that have, to be honest, startled me. The first, more useful to me in thinking more clearly about the fundamental changes that are taking place in my professional field is the monograph Literary Studies in the Digital Age: an Evolving Anthology ,a part of the MLA Commons project. Here is the description of the anthology by the editors:
We began the process of creating this anthology with the intention of providing a primer to core tools and techniques for computational approaches to literary studies. Yet, since literary studies represents a confluence of fields and subfields, tools and techniques, and since computational approaches come from a great variety of sources, it became clear that any primer would have to be dynamic and capable of incorporating a rich and growing array of methodologies.
What is interesting is that the anthology is evolving using the tools of social computing made possible by web 2.0 technologies. In their Introduction, Introduction, Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens make the following claim:
The field of literary studies is being reshaped in the digital age. Texts have acquired a new kind of malleability, and they are often encountered in large aggregations, allowing for a scale of research far different from that in the past. At the same time, new possibilities as well as limitations for publishing are changing how, what, and to whom texts are disseminated. These changes require us to reexamine assumptions and to adopt altered research methodologies.
The introduction is worth reading. It can help to moderate the rhetoric that surrounds what some have called the digital turn. They return to 1963 and the founding of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Cambridge University by Roy Wisbey. They also mention the period between 1966–78 when professional organizations were established and publications developed to explore possibilities of using computers in the humanities. They call attention to Computers and the Humanities (1966), the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC, 1973), and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH, 1978).
The other project is more ambitious, and delightfully so: The Digital Public Library of America is working to make available (the beta version launches April 18 2013) an enormous amount of archival materials. The material and conceptual implications of this project are staggering. The blog entry called “What is the DPLA?” is a helpful place to start. There is also a very good overview of the conception of the project in the April 25 2103 edition (vol. LX no.7) of The New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton.
To take just one example of a DPLA “service hub”: The Mountain West Digital Library (MWDL) is a search portal for digital collections about the Mountain West region with free access to over 700,000 resources from universities, colleges, public libraries, museums, historical societies, and government agencies, counties, and municipalities in Utah, Nevada, and other parts of the U.S. West. The MWDL will help to accelerate the preservation of materials in these local sites while reaching out to provide access to those interested in the mountain west. For someone who teaches at a small, centrally isolated liberal arts college, the materials available in the Mountain West Digital Library collections will give me the capacity (and help me imagine) new ways to do my own research as well as help me teach courses using primary documents that would otherwise be unavailable to my students.
March 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature,” comments Ralph Waldo Emerson in an essay I am reading this week with my students, “The American Scholar.” And here I am, reading Emerson, looking out at a recent late March snow, and happily thinking back through this scholar’s mind and body to the enduring presence of vast and endless slopes of snow.
Emerson is also reminding me that books are for a scholar’s idle times; though I’m a careful of enough reader to know that I need not feel as if I would not be here and rather be somewhere else. If anything, Emerson’s musings help remind me that both activity and idleness have together helped me wring from life the energies of which he speaks.
Still, in images here recently passed along by a climbing friend Milda I recognize the source of the manifold allusions that transform the intellectual work of reading into a form of action. As Emerson remarks in another of his essays, “The Poet,” “We know that the secret of the world is profound, but who or what shall be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain ramble, a new style of face, a new person, may put the key into our hands.”
“Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body–show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking; as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing–and the world no longer a dull miscellany and lumber room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench” (“The American Scholar”).
February 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
It was an honor to receive word recently that I have been elected President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Since 1992, ASLE has brought together teachers, writers, students, artists and environmentalists interested in the natural world and its meanings and representations in language and culture. ASLE is an interdisciplinary and international organization with over a thousand members and affiliated organizations in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. I will serve as Vice President in 2013, President in 2014, and Immediate Past President in 2015.
My involvement with ASLE goes back many years. In fact, I still have newsletters from 1995 when I joined the organization while still a graduate student at the University of Washington, and I participated in the second biennial conference in Missoula, Montana, in July of 1997. Since then, I have attended ASLE gatherings at Western Michigan University; in Kalamazoo; Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff; Boston University; the University of Oregon, in Eugene; Wofford College, in Spartanburg, South Carolina; the University of Victoria, in British Columbia; and Indiana University, In Bloomington.
In addition to presenting work in progress, and publishing writing in the field of the environmental humanities, I have worked diligently to strengthen the organization. As a member of the ASLE Executive Council, I collaborated with officers and members to envision a Managing Director position, refine the ASLE mission, organize ASLE-sponsored sessions at regional conferences, and contributed to strategic planning retreats. And for the past ten years I have served as the Coordinator of the ASLE Mentoring Program. The mission of the ASLE Mentoring Program is to connect graduate students with experienced faculty mentors beyond their home institutions and to cultivate intellectual exchange and community among scholars at all stages of their academic careers. Mentors offer advice regarding reading lists and scholarly resources; they provide feedback on course syllabi and writing; they provide an interested colleague to listen to ideas or professional concerns; they sit on exam or dissertation committees; and they share advice regarding the job market or publishing.
The Mentoring Program has grown with our organization. In addition to matching applicants with experienced faculty mentors, I have developed a range of activities to facilitate intellectual exchange and community among the members of the organization.
- Biennial Conference Mentoring Sessions: the Mentoring Program offers one-on-one job information sessions at the biennial conference. These sessions are designed to welcome new members to the organization as well as to meet the needs of graduate students and colleagues. Beginning graduate students benefit from hearing about work in the field as they begin to imagine a professional horizon beyond graduate school. Graduate students nearing completion of their programs, or those who are seeking academic positions, ask questions or talk about preparing a job portfolio. One-hour conferences take place throughout the week, mostly during concurrent session slots that do not conflict with community events, including plenary talks and dinners;
- Collaboration with the Graduate Student Liaisons: the Mentoring Program co-sponsors preconference workshops and concurrent sessions on negotiating the relationship between professional aspirations and realities, the prospects of interdisciplinarity, the futures of academic disciplines and programs, the range of academic positions and institutions, as well as the life trajectories of careers of ASLE members unfolding outside the college and university. For example, at the last conference, we offered sessions on entering the profession, “Building Your Professional Identity: Funding, Publishing, and Conferencing” and on “Adapting to the Changing Academic Market.” The Coordinator has also been involved in designing and updating a resource on the web listing programs with a faculty member or a program focused on literature and environment in the ASLE Graduate Student Handbook.
- The Staying Alive Project: the Mentoring Program has extended the ASLE mentoring network to colleagues at any stage in their careers. While traditionally focused on graduate students and younger faculty, the Mentoring Program co-sponsors conference workshops and maintains an online conversation for ASLE members interested in exploring the opportunities and challenges of an academic career. The archive of resources for living an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia is at Staying Alive.
- International Mentoring: the Coordinator of the Mentoring Program has responded to interest from our affiliated organizations for mentoring by developing mentoring relationships with the help of ASLE members who have worked or taught outside the US. Scholars and teachers based in the US provide intellectual contacts and mentors for graduate students and professors working outside the US; and scholars and teachers in the US continue to seek forms of mentoring from scholars and teachers in our ASLE-affiliated organizations. Increasingly, the work of the Coordinator of the Mentoring Program includes making contacts for scholars and teachers hoping to do work in the US, and for US scholars seeking contacts abroad. For instance, the Coordinator has recently worked with graduate students and scholars in India, Kenya, Israel, Egypt, Nigeria, China, Ireland, Japan and France.
- The Coordinator also works with the International Liaison and others in ASLE to meet needs of students and scholars outside the US. While we may recommend to colleagues that they might benefit from North American mentoring, we are also helping to encourage our sister organizations to develop their own mentoring networks. The ASLE mentoring program is also seeking to enlist international (local) mentors for up-and-coming scholars.
As Vice President and President of ASLE I am looking forward to working with the Executive Council and Managing Director to further the organization’s strategic priorities. I’m especially excited by our strategic focus on building relationships—with undergraduate and graduate students, allied academic organizations, community groups, and colleagues around the world. Working as a professor and chair of English, a core faculty member in American Studies, and an affiliate faculty in Environmental Studies, I have experience building relationships through the environmental humanities—with colleagues in the sciences, interdisciplinary programs, and organizations beyond the academy. Most of my recent scholarly work, including co-editing the book Teaching North American Environmental Literature, has been collaborative. Much of our outreach activities in the organization have been devoted to deepening our commitments to diversity. My recent sabbatical year in India underscored the many opportunities for fostering diversity through collaborations with ASLE communities beyond North America. Growing interest from our affiliated organizations, in fact, has inspired me to expand the mentoring program’s focus to meet the needs of a diverse group of graduate students and professors from outside the United States.
To learn more about ASLE, visit our web site at http://www.asle.org/.
January 23, 2013 § 1 Comment
It has been close to eight years since one of my students asked if she could build a hypertext reading of Gary Snyder’s poem “Piute Creek.” Brooke’s work is no longer extant, as it was built on a now defunct server. But looking back I can glimpse how her project led to a series of questions about writing and teaching I have been thinking through for years.
In the summer of 2006, teaching for the Bread Loaf School of English in Juneau, Alaska, I experimented with using a blog to capture the intellectual and experiential work of a small group of graduate students in my course “Searching for Wildness.” The project demonstrated to me the practical possibilities of writing in a digital format; it also helped me find a new medium for making visible what takes place during a college-level humanities class–that seeks to imagine through this visibility the shared intellectual project of teaching and learning.
During our year India I chronicled our experiences for family and friends on a blog where I posted a few thoughts on digital writing. Then, in 2010, I mused in “Professors, Students, Blogs” about my experiences writing on a web log (or “blog”) during my sabbatical year. The writing and photography that accumulated on that blog from our time in India inspired a number of other writing-related projects using blogs, including working with students who were using a blog for their writing.
The 2012-13 academic year has been an opportunity for me to go further with the course blog. In my fall environmental studies course, “Writing in an Endangered World,” the students and I did all of our writing using digital means. The course blog replaced the printed syllabus; handouts and writing prompts were shared on the blog; and I used the blog to engage with the materials we were reading before class and to reflect on our discussions. Students designed and archived their writing on their own blogs as well.
As I prepared the course materials for “Writing in an Endangered World” I wrote the following for the students in response to a question I thought some of them might have, Why a Blog?
E-mail, web pages, wikis, blogs, Facebook, social networks, twitter—much of the writing we are doing now takes place in a digital format. And while all of us are still working out the conceptual implications of these new technologies, the advent of digital writing has created pedagogical opportunities to think about (and with) the digital tools that we use to represent and understand ourselves, and the world.
I then went on to say:
Blogging offers significant opportunities for student writers:
- Designing and managing a blog offers experience using one of the digital technologies we use as readers and writers. Digital writing requires all of the knowledge and skill writers use in other formats in addition to the new ways digital writing blends modes of representation (visual and verbal) and creates opportunities for fresh conceptual and material connections;
- A blog can help shift the motivation for writing from the assignment to the writer. For it may be that one of the obstacles to growth as a writer is the writing assignment: that is, more often than not, writing assignments motivate writing for a purpose other than one’s own. Your blog posts will therefore be focused on questions and problems rather than assignments, on the thoughtful (and creative) exploration of ideas as opposed to more mechanistic forms of response to the readings;
- The relatively short form of the blog entry encourages concise and purposive writing. Managing to say exactly what you need to say in fewer words will challenge you as a writer;
- The likelihood that the blog will actually be read will help you become more rhetorically aware—of the conceptual, linguistic, social, emotional and ethical concerns a writer must address to be effective with any audience;
- Writing in a digital format (a web log, or blog) enacts (and represents) the complex process of thinking and writing that takes place in a college-level course; and we will use your writing experiences, and the archive of writing that we create, to reflect on your learning process, and the role of writing in that process;
- Finally, from a standpoint of sustainability, a blog allows for drafting and composing and sharing your thinking without using reams of paper. While the resources to sustain the electronic networks consume vast amounts of energy, we will at least be using and recycling less paper.
All of these reasons are even more compelling to me having tested them in the fall. (It is pretty neat to teach a whole course as an English professor and use no paper.) As a result, I am embarking on another blog-based course this semester, our introduction to the major course, Literary Analysis. Once again, students will be doing all of their writing on their own blogs. The additional opportunity in this course is for students to create and curate a blog that might serve as a portfolio of their reading, thinking and writing in the major.
I would be remiss were I not to credit the idea of the student blogs to my friend, colleague and collaborator, Sean Meehan, who has used blogs with his students at Washington College. Sean’s example has demonstrated to me the myriad ways a blog can be used to further my pedagogical goal to improve student learning in my courses. I should also mention professor Joe Harris’ Spring 2012 Digital Writing course at Duke University that helped me find my way to a number of writings on the subject of digital writing. Too, I was intrigued by the question that professor Harris says drives the course: What needs to change when you write not for the page but the screen?
What I have discovered in my own work is that the problem of writing—and, of learning to write—remains unchanged. Writing is a problem precisely because it requires thinking. And thinking is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. As William Carlos Williams reminds us, “an empty head tapped on / sounds hollow / in any language.” As a result, Harris’ question has become less interesting, perhaps. Still, as I become more skeptical of the claims about writing and literacy mediated by technology I am receiving in my book review editor mailbox book-length studies and essays in anthologies announcing on the one hand the fall of literacy as we know it and on the other hand a radical and visionary transformation of literacy.
In one of the recent books that has come across my desk, this one coming out of the national writing project, Digital Writing Matters, one finds a working definition and a kind of breathless sense that something profound is taking place:
[We] define digital writing as compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet. This in itself is a transformation in the ways in which we write. The bigger transformation is, however, the networked ways in which we can share, distribute, and archive digital compositions using Internet based technologies. Today’s network connectivity allows writers to draw from myriad sources, use a range of media, craft various types of compositions representing a range of tools and genres, and distribute that work almost instantaneously and sometimes globally. Michael Crawford, one of Chris Joseph’s interviewees (2005), summed up the new possibilities of digital writing well: “I like to think of it as a totally new place . . .where one can experience freedom of form and from the boundaries now imposed.” And for Alison Clifford, “The most positive aspect of digital writing has come from the need to re-think writing and how stories are told.
It would be difficult to make a case that the ecosystem of writing has not been radically changed. But at the same time, all of this talk about new possibilities sidesteps the day-to-day work of writing, and the challenges of teaching of writing. I’m just not convinced that the medium, in this case, is the message, or that digital technologies have changed the problem of putting words together in a sequence that does what we might want language to do. At the same time, digital technologies provide and exciting space for writers to write, and for students aspiring to become writers might find their voice. So as the jury continues to wander all I can say for sure is that digital technologies are simply one more set of tools to find our way to those mindful and mannerly and well-formed words we were hoping to write.
January 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In one of the alumni magazines I receive periodically there is an interview with the new Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bob Stacey. Dean Stacey is asked in the interview how he responds to the idea that the liberal arts are no longer relevant, the mantra of the “liberal arts naysayers.” Here is part of what he says in his response:
I think that a liberal arts education remains a tremendously powerful instrument for social and economic mobility. A study a few years back showed that the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs majored in liberal arts subjects, with history as the most popular major. I don’t think that is accidental. A liberal arts education gives students the capacity to think in a variety of ways and to adapt to a world that is changing very quickly. Our alumni bear this out. They include Nobel Prize scientists, best-selling authors, astronauts, environmental leaders, technology entrepreneurs, founders of local theatre companies, and elected officials–including Washington’s governor, King County executive, and many state senators. . . . Yet a liberal arts education is not only about jobs, but fundamentally about preparing people to become informed, effective citizens. We are in the business of producing students with the capacity to understand both sides of an issue and the ability to put themselves in the shoes of others who see the world very differently. Those are the qualities that our students will need to be effective citizens, whatever their career. With 70 percent of our alumni remaining in Washington, this role is vitally important to our state.
We circulate similar claims for the value of a liberal arts education here in New Hampshire. In fact, the value of a public liberal arts college in the University System of New Hampshire is reflected in the mission of Keene State College. The capacity to think, to be responsive to a changing world, to take part in the democratic process by understanding the point of view of others—these are the capacities we value and that we seek to instill in our students.
We are interviewing for an assistant professor of English this year and so I have been thinking about the liberal arts. The search committee gathered in December to review and discuss close to 150 applications the position. As the chair of the search committee, I traveled to the annual Modern Language Association convention with two colleagues where we spent the good part of three days talking to the finalists for the position—talking with prospective colleagues about the challenging and rewarding work of the public liberal arts.
Two other professional obligations in Boston also centered around the liberal arts. I presided at a session I organize every year on the small college English department. This year’s session, “English and the Humanities in an Age of Accountability,” explored the ways faculty have created conditions for teaching and learning in an age when both activities are diminished by more narrow outcomes. Arranged by the MLA Office of Research and the Director of the Association of Departments of English (ADE), David Laurence, this session has for over a decade approached professional issues from the perspective of faculty working small college department. Over the years, we have talked about scholarship, tenure and promotion in the small college department; student learning and faculty expectations in relation to the recent book Academically Adrift; the 2008 Report of the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature; the differences and commonalities between graduate education and the small-college department; and the relations between learning and pedagogy in the small public liberal arts college. The speakers at the 2013 session considered a set of key questions for all of us who work to promote a liberal arts education:
- How has the small college department and faculty responded to internal and external pressures to demonstrate student learning?
- How have those of us in smaller colleges articulated the value of the humanities and the liberal arts as our colleagues, students and parents express concerns with the value of a college degree?
- How do we offer robust programs in the liberal arts given the widespread impulse of state legislators to disinvest in public higher education?
- How do we talk about the liberal arts curriculum in relation to more tangible and so-called measurable outcomes such as career path, job title, or salary?
Accepting my invitation to speak at the 2013 session were Claire Gleitman, Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Ithaca College; Sean Meehan, Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland; and Daniel G. Payne, Professor of English at SUNY College at Oneonta.
The discussion that emerged at the small college session carried over to another panel on which I had been invited to speak, “Poetics and the Liberal Arts.” My contribution to this panel looked to William Carlos Williams, and in particular his book The Embodiment of Knowledge, for guidance about the problem of what he calls the “academic, the didactic, the simply deductive” ways of producing knowledge about the world. The term poiesis in Williams’ writing, I argued, offers an orientation towards the disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and non-disciplinary forms of knowledge in colleges and universities.
How are we engaging students not in the specialized knowledge of a small group of specialists—what Williams calls “tedious deserts of information—fossil tracks—falsely directed profundities” (141)—but rather in what he terms “the unscholarly gist” the “disordered inclusiveness, taking form (or no form) in nature”? (137). Williams’ poetics of knowledge, I concluded, would orient us not to what has been thought but rather to thinking itself. Or as Williams polemically frames a starting point in “(A Sketch for) The Beginnings of an American Education”: “A good beginning. . .would be to abolish in the American schools (at least) all English departments and to establish in [their] place the department of Language—of which the English could be a subsidiary” (146-47). The emphasis on language is inclusive of literature, of course, and poetry (as Williams advocates) would be a central practice—but only insofar as students of poetry would gain the opportunity to engage with language as “primary” (141). Rather than a call for more “service learning” or “internships” or whatever people mean by the term “active learning,” Williams underscores our work with language as primary—in our curricula, in conversations with our colleagues, and in the institutions and the communities that seek (and deserve) coherent rationale for our intellectual work. Understanding poetics as a pedagogical orientation may help to conceptualize the liberal arts in a way that will remain open to the radical contingencies of our institutions as they evolve in relationship to ongoing changes in technology, culture, government and business.
December 11, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This fall, in addition to the gathering on writing at Dartmouth College I described in an earlier post, I found myself in Newark, Delaware with colleagues from the departments of Art and Graphic Design, Communications, Music, History, and Film. We had all signed on as a team representing Keene State College at an institute sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) and hosted by the University of Delaware.
Our work was to talk about the possibilities of undergraduate research and creative inquiry in the arts and humanities at Keene State College. I had approached this fledgling initiative at the College last year in a conversation with the Dean of the School of Sciences, Gordon Leversee, about a PURE student with an interest in the environmental humanities. In our discussion, we talked about ways of working across schools to offer students with interests in the environment a way to work with faculty in English and History should such interest come to us in the future. Last year I also met with Graham Warder and Nick Germana from the department of History to discuss possible ways of facilitating undergraduate research in the humanities. Before meeting with Graham, we spent most of a department meeting in English talking about using library materials, especially the Modern Poetry Archive and (for faculty in American Studies especially) the Doris Haddock archive as possible venues for undergraduate research in English. I had worked with Rodney Obien, the College’s archivist, to co-direct an Independent Study for a student cataloging materials in the Modern Poetry Archive.
Part of my work as a participant involved drafting a statement about undergraduate research in English. Here is what I came up with:
The English Department encourages students to participate in extra-curricular creative and research-based projects to enhance their intellectual growth and to make meaningful contributions to the field of English studies. Undergraduate research in English includes, but is not limited to, conference presentations, public reading of creative writing, archival and editorial activities, and the scholarship of teaching and pedagogy.
Attending the Institute also allowed me to gather ideas about how we might help students engage in undergraduate research in the years to come. As I look beyond my final year as chair of English (7 out of the past 10 years!) and having served as the chair of FEAC and a few other high profile committees, I see this as an exciting prospect for me and for my colleagues, a project that I will have more time to devote to in the coming years.
A student at Keene State, Eric Walker, wrote a brief news item about our trip in the campus newspaper. The CUR team report sketches out our preliminary ideas about how to move this project forward at Keene State College.
November 29, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In early October Phyllis and I drove north, up Interstate 91, to Hanover, to attend “Writing Summit 2012: The Power of Writing in the Contemporary World.” We are taking a couple of days out of our busy schedule to join a distinguished group of people who share our interest in writing and the teaching of writing.
The conference was organized to honor the 45th anniversary of Dartmouth’s legendary seminar on teaching writing. The Summit Moderator, Joe Harris, from Duke University, has written about the 1966 seminar and its influence on the traditions of teaching writing in colleges and universities. According to his narrative, the 1966 gathering helped to establish scholarly interest in the relationship between writing and learning and inspire the writing across the curriculum (WAC) and writing in the disciplines movements (WID).
Professor Harris framed the seminar with a series of questions:
- What are common features of writing across disciplines?
- What are the distinctive features of writing in particular disciplines?
- How does composting for the screen (digital technologies) differ from writing for the page?
- How do we work with multilingual writers?
- How do we help students write for diverse audiences?
- How do we help students become apprentice scholars and writers in our fields?
- What is the relationship between learning about a field and learning how to write in it?
- Do we need to reconstitute our views of student writers?
The other keynote speakers were Steven Strogatz (professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University and Columnist for the New York Times), David McCullough (historian, lecturer, author), Hortense Spillers (professor of English at Vanderbilt University), Keith Gilyard (professor of English at Penn State), Kathleen lake Yancey (professor of English at Florida State University), Patricia Bizzell (professor of Humanities at Holy Cross), Maria Jerskey professor of Education and Language Acquisition at LaGuardia Community College), Katherine Bergeron (professor Music at Brown University) and Dartmouth faculty members Daniel Rockmore (Mathematics), Leslie Butler (History), Ioana Chitoran (Linguistics), and Melanie Benson Taylor (Native American Studies).
The conversation across the two days was ostensibly about the central place of writing in learning. Strogatz spoke about writing with a beginner’s mind about abstract mathematics; McCullough emphasized the “hard, hard work” of writing and the act of writing as a way of discovering what you think; Gilyard addressed the commonplace assumptions that some people are writers and some are not by emphasizing the “beautiful struggle” of getting words right; Spiller underscored writing as a form risk taking, an intimate endeavor, writing as always with a stake in the future of democracy, and writing as absorbing and practicing conventions as a way of entering into the power of language.
For me, one the memorable moments at the conference was McCullough speaking with a note of incredulity about the strained language of teachers who want to link critical thinking with writing. “I spend my time as a writer and historian thinking, not thinking critically—whatever that means.” A student in attendance also spoke eloquently about why professors need not worry so much about them. “Just give us good ideas to work with,” the student exclaimed. “Intellectual challenges that will make us think.”