MFA Thesis Reading: Mickey Kenny, Derek Askey, and Joanna Doxey

This post is reblogged from the Center for Literary Publishing, where I originally posted it on Thursday.

On March 29, 2013, the Hatton Gallery at the CSU Visual Arts Center was packed with the friends, teachers, students, and proud family members of third-year MFA students Mickey Kenny, Derek Askey, and Joanna Doxey. Everyone came to hear the three writers’ final readings, a celebration of completing the MFA program and graduating with their master’s degrees. This event was especially important to the Center for Literary Publishing because Joanna and Derek serve as associate editors of Colorado Review.

Mickey Kenny set the tone, reading from his thesis “Harm Harness Harmony,” a book of poems in four parts. It became clear from the beginning that each writer was interested in thematic questions of place, as Mickey explained his subtitles referred to the four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. He read from the section “Watertecture Hexagonoir” (water via eye). This melding of nature and body creates a kind of internal worldscape, so that self and place overlap and bleed into one another. “I fear the rivers within us,” he read, then, “…a part of me has drifted, is drifting, and I don’t know where to ashore myself.” In “Watertecture,” Mickey took us on a journey through the bodyscape and Alaskan landscape, to the Iditarod, of which he read:

My feet are sore and there are roots within my mouth. Iditarod. The word tastes exile. Hidedhod. I taste exile. Distant, Distant place, river. I fear the Hidedhod within me. I stow emotion within movement. I can no longer offer structure. I crave space untethered.

Indeed, space untethered is what Mickey gave us in the reading from his manuscript; a spacious, wandering poetry. (Bonus: for further wisdom and rhymes, check out Mickey’s band, Wasteland Hop.)

Derek Askey, who has interned at the Center for Literary Publishing since 2011, represented MFA fictioneers with a reading from his novel in progress, tentatively titled Under the Allegheny. The story, set in Derek’s hometown of Pittsburgh, follows the beer brewing Weiss family as they navigate the social and economic pressures of late 19th-century America. The selection he read began with details of place, with sounds of the city, and, as he noted beforehand, corresponding bodily functions: “A hiccup, a burp. The clatter of West Penn Railway tracks not one block south. The peal of firecrackers lit in the distance. These sounds burned across the July humidity.”

On Independence Day, fourteen-year-old Gregor Weiss can be found drinking in his father’s taproom. Between the threat of violence from older, stronger men and the threat of disruption from some temperance women who crash the bar, Gregor has a flash of adolescent insight about the future he might have. He is aware “that a vast, broken world awaited him … it would overtake him, this world, Gregor was certain. It would break him to its will. And it would be his father who did the breaking.” That he has not yet glimpsed this vast world ahead of him is clear, as he is trapped inside his undeveloped body, inside his father’s brewery, and inside the boundaries of his industrial city. The end of the chapter takes us to the edge of the Allegheny River, which, in a moment of fear, Gregor hopes might sweep him away from his place, for, as he and Derek noted, “Men shaped their own destinies, or they were not men.” The audience received, from Derek’s reading, the promise of a spacious novel in which Gregor and his family might shape something like a destiny. (Bonus: visit Derek’s blog “You’ve Never Seen Work“, for more insightful writing.)

Finally, the audience was treated to the poetry of Joanna Doxey, who has interned for the Center since 2010. The work she read from her thesis, was, again, a poetry concerned with place, but this time with an emphasis on absence and memory. She began from the prologue, which started “this land is a memory of wind without wind”, and continued:

There is a memory of breath,

or a relearning of pronouns.

I think again of lungs or glaciers without words.

Lungs and glaciers, breath and words, intertwined and lead into her book of absence, which asks urgently about disappearance, about abandonment. She read:

Consider a meadow, with an impossibly placed boulder resting in its center, abandoned thousands of years earlier by snow and ice  snow and the movement of melt—

Glaciers in their absence shape a land that holds their memory.

Some readers shy away from too much silence in performance, but the space Joanna gave us within and between her poems allowed her audience to travel the distance between time and place, body and breath. We ended the reading with a sense of release, and with a better understanding of endings, in their necessary wordlessness.

After three years of diligent work in the MFA program, including time volunteered to internships, jobs, and community literacy projects, our readers gave us an offering of keen and beautiful words to remember them by. It was a lovely final reading to celebrate their thesis year, but certainly not the last we’ll hear from these writers.

Sherman Alexie Speaks at C.S.U.

I wrote this post last week for Colorado State University’s new MFA blog.

The Colorado State University diversity symposium this fall began their week with keynote speaker (and author, poet, screenwriter, producer, and performer) Sherman Alexie. I was informed by the diversity symposium’s website, that “Alexie uses irony throughout his work in an attempt to dispel myths about the conditions of Native Americans living on reservations…” and that he would be bringing “his unique humor” to CSU that night. I thought, yes, I have read some of Sherman Alexie’s novels, stories, and poems, and yes, he is very funny. How I am looking forward to seeing him speak. But I was not expecting the two hours of straight stand-up comedy to which Alexie treated his audience that night. Bring his unique sense of humor? Boy, did he ever.

As with all good humor, his comedy was serious—seriously funny, and at the same time, earnest as hell. Between stories about growing up on a Spokane reservation and telling us the myth of the man who kept putting his penis in everything, Alexie said to students “Some people might complain that because people laughed this wasn’t serious. But it’s exactly the opposite.” What Alexie gave us was a belly-laugh-aching social critique that addressed the core wounds one might expect a keynote speaker to address in something called a “diversity symposium”, in the most unexpected ways. He never shied away from the controversial. He asked us to face stereotypes about Native Americans (and their storytelling wisdom, among many common assumptions), to look at poverty in all of its grotesque detail, and to question the rhetoric of victimhood and oppression that so often finds a place in events such as that symposium.

And although some of the more controversial statements were launched right after a joke, so that the audience was caught unawares in the midst of our own laughter, in other moments he made a point to screw with us. During a lecture full of digressions, he asserted, “The tangential can be sacred—write that down!” only to continue with a metanarrative satirizing his own authority. “What a wise thing to say. Was he serious, or was he just covering up because he forgot where he was? Or was that part of his storytelling routine…?” There was never a moment the audience was not enthralled by his particular brand of storytelling, an eccentric blend of narratives that eventually led us back to the same urgent questions about the politics of identity.

In the end, addressing yet another serious topic, the idea of doubleness and the negative connotations of the “difficulty of living in two worlds” that is so often applied to minorities, Alexie reminded us that nobody live in just two worlds—in his words, “there are hundreds”. We get too wrapped up in one identity, he says, and the trick is to “surround your adversaries with your identities.” A lesson that he taught by example, because surrounding us with the force of his many wonderful identities was exactly what Alexie did that night.

Quiet: the Extrovert Ideal in College

    I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I thought it was very good, and the message she is sending, that we need to rebalance our culture to include and value introverted qualities, is oh-so important. This is a pop psychology text; as such, it tends toward more simplistic explanations. She writes in a note that she chose the broad terms introvert and extrovert rather than more recent psychological personality indicators like the Big Five characteristics because she wanted to appeal to a popular audience. So the binary does get a little old, and at times too competitive, as she tends to overemphasize the “power” of introverts vs. extroverts. Still, she had some great myth-busting research behind all of her arguments. I was interested in the bit of American history she started with, showing us the shift from a culture focused on character to a culture focused on personality. And as always, I was interested in how her research applied to education.

As Cain points out, classrooms in the U.S. are usually organized not in rows but in “pods” of desks, the better for students to do group work, and assignments are often done in groups, beginning in early elementary (77). This is the way I experienced elementary school and the way I taught elementary a few years ago, and now this organizational style appears to have continued through high school straight into college classrooms. Cain says the reason is that it’s more cost-effective, which is part of it: student-teacher ratios are rising in public schools, and teachers don’t have the time or the help to work one-on-one with students, so they pair students with each other.

It’s not only cost though. Cain talks a little bit about what she calls “the rise of the new groupthink”, but doesn’t get into a lot of detail in her education section. Teachers, including college faculty, are being trained to teach this way because we have learned to eschew a model where the instructor is the fount of information and the students are there to listen. Now, we like to teach as facilitators, showing all students that they have knowledge to contribute, and that together we are all smarter than we are individually. Our lectures are supposed to be punctuated with questions and discussion. None of this is bad; we know that the ideal classroom has a balance of lecture, independent work, group activities, and whole-class discussion. And we do want to empower our students by asking them to contribute to the conversation. But when I look at my lesson plans and the suggested activities given to me by my department, I find an overwhelming number of group activities. Sometimes the entire class period shifts from one group activity to the next, so that they really do spend the time working in a “pod” of their peers. The feedback I receive from my students varies, yet the consensus lately is: group work is o.k., but we want more lecture, more discussion, and more writing time. When college freshmen say that they want more lecture and more time to write their assignments in class, it’s easy to dismiss that as a bid for less work in a required course. However, I think there’s some value to it: what they’re really saying is, we don’t want to work together on everything. After all, sometimes group work doesn’t have the best outcomes…

 

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…and often it creates the same dynamic that a whole-class discussion might have, with the confident, talkative students taking charge and the quieter or more shy students hanging back.

It’s especially interesting to note what happens when we ask our students to brainstorm in groups. According to Cain, studies have shown unambiguously that people produce more and better ideas when working alone than they do when brainstorming with other people (88). When people brainstorm in groups, they are inhibited by several things: the ability to sit back and let others do the work, the passivity that comes from taking turns because only one person can talk at once, and the fear of having one’s ideas judged by one’s peers (Cain 89). People are even likely to go along with the group when they know that the rest of the group is wrong (90). To dissent takes significant effort and courage that most eighteen and nineteen-year-olds haven’t fully cultivated. The truth is that people who are most successful in their fields get there not through team efforts, but through focused and deliberate solo practice (83). And yet brainstorming and group work continue to be enormously popular activities inside of the classroom and beyond.

Cain attributes this rise in the popularity of Groupthink partly to the internet age. She writes, “What created Linux, or Wikipedia, if not a gigantic electronic brainstorming session? But we’re so impressed by the power of online collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue all group work at the expense of solo thought. We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world” (89). So when my students and I hear Clay Shirky’s argument that we are smarter collectively than we are individually, we should keep in mind that he is working from the context of Twitter, where people contribute ideas independently, without face-to-face interaction.

Certainly, the composition department has given me plenty of ideas for activities where students do some thinking independently before sharing with a group. I start most classes with an independent writing assignment, because this is a writing class, and most writing is done alone; I don’t mean to imply that we do all of our writing activities in small groups. But Cain’s research does explain why our small groups often come up with the same ideas, or why the class will be silent during a whole-class brainstorming session, even if individual students have demonstrated creativity in their writing. Developing an accepting and respectful class culture can help, but giving students the time alone to think about questions is crucial.

I realize also that because this is college, my class only meets for three hours a week. So the argument can be made that students should be doing their dedicated solo practice to become better readers and writers outside of class, and class time is when we meet up to put our independent ideas together. I can get on board with that, provided that students actually are practicing alone outside of class. After all, the only sure way to become a better writer is to spend hours and hours of focused time writing alone. Still, when I look around my university, I wonder if the rest of the college culture is actually encouraging them to do so.

In the beginning of her book, Cain has some interesting research on what she calls “the rise of the Extrovert Ideal” in the U.S. She argues that prior to the industrial age, Americans valued character­—moral values and work ethic­—but toward the late nineteenth century, we began to value personality instead: namely, social charm and gregariousness. This social expectation made its way into colleges too, so that in the 1940s Harvard’s provost declared a preference for boys of the “healthy extrovert kind” over the “intellectually over-stimulated”. Yale also became less concerned with incoming students’ academic success and more with their extracurricular activities. What motivates universities to change, of course, is often the job market, and these admissions officers knew that American companies were looking for the personalities of salesmen, employees who would be comfortable working with the public (Cain 28). The same trend still occurs in university admissions now, as student pressure to be “well-rounded” can be just as intense as the pressure to achieve academically.

Cain then argues that along with the Extrovert Ideal, the idea that people-people are the healthiest and most valuable individuals, came Groupthink, the idea that teamwork produces better results than independent work. She points out that the new Groupthink has even influenced our architecture, so that companies now favor open-office floor plans without walls, where employees all work together. She writes that “over 70 percent of today’s employees work in an open plan” (76), even though research has shown that employees are actually more productive when given their own space in which to work (83). Companies also constantly utilize teams, believing that group work is the key to innovation and success (76). So, just as Harvard and Yale responded to social expectations and the requirements of the job market, colleges today are responding to the new Groupthink trend in companies. Universities want their students to be prepared for jobs after they graduate, and since those jobs are going to require students to collaborate, they reason that students had better learn how to collaborate in class.

Open Office Plan

And, going back to my earlier question about whether or not the college culture supports independent study time, I think that college collaboration ethic goes beyond the classroom. For example, I see the ideology of Groupthink reflected here in the architecture of CSU’s recently renovated library, which resembles an open-office floor plan to the letter, on every single floor. On the first floor students work in pods of computers, on the second they work at long tables for four or more people, and on the third they participate in something called a “collaboratory”, where they sit on couches and use standing white boards to study together. The newest addition to our library is called the “study cube”, a large glass room where students are visible to each other and to the trafficky walkways near the student center. As an introvert myself, a writer, and a graduate student, I have always utilized libraries as quiet places of solitude for my work. Prior to renovation, I had an easier time finding the nooks where I could concentrate on my work without distraction. Now that the renovation is almost complete, with most of the walls and shelves of books moved or taken away, it’s nearly impossible for me to find solitude in the library. Even the few designated “quiet rooms” are wide open spaces where students attempt to ignore each other and work alone, away from all of the healthy collaboration outside. It’s telling that the best place to work independently now is the windowless basement; all of the more attractive real estate is designed for group activities.

Luckily for me, and unlike most of my students, I live alone off campus, so I have my own space in which to read and write. My concern for them is that they have few opportunities to practice studying by themselves. Most of them live with roommates in the dormitories, where solitude is elusive at best. The library is now a collaboratory, the student center doesn’t really have optimal study space, and neither do the classroom buildings. So while I’m teaching them that good writing requires dedicated solo practice, they are working with other people 24/7 both in and outside of class. I’m afraid it takes an especially determined and serious student to find the space and time to work alone on this college campus.

CSU Library Collaboratory

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With school starting for us today, I have Susan Cain’s research in mind. I’m thinking about how I can create a respectful and open classroom culture while still cultivating students’ independent thinking and the capacity for dissent that is so key to questioning rhetoric. I have a lot of fun and helpful group activities, but I want to incorporate some more traditional methods (rows of desks, lecture, independent assignments), because traditional does not mean ineffective. On the contrary, some of my best teachers have used very traditional structures. So in my classes we may take more time for our writing, I might spend a little more time talking on key points, and I will probably change the way we workshop so that they have more time alone before discussing their assignments.

Whether you work in education or not, I definitely recommend Quiet. In fact, Cain researches introversion in many contexts, going far beyond business and school, so I think most people would find it enlightening. It’s a fast read and an informative one. Her call for quiet time is especially necessary right now, when people are doing so much talking and comparatively little thinking.

What about you: have you read the book, and what are your thoughts on it? Can you relate to some of these ideas, in the context of school or your own life?