Category: Storytelling

Reviewing, Re-Viewing

Book reviews!  Last month I had one published in the fall issue of Texas Books in Review as well as in The Rumpus (the latter of which is viewable online here).  Yesterday, for the first time, I received a review copy of a book in the mail directly from a publisher, and that was a good feeling.  Very exciting.  Brings me back to a topic I keep going on and on about in this blog – merging what you want to do with what you need to do for a career.  Of course, I’m not getting paid for my reviews (except in books!) yet, but given that I read a lot and like to write brief reviews for Goodreads and friends anyway, writing a full formal review is only a tiny step beyond what I would be doing regardless.  For me, this makes it an obvious choice for what to do with my extra time.

What has been a less than obvious choice is this year’s set of conferences.  I’m definitely attending and presenting at the Rhetoric Society of America‘s conference.  It’s a national conference and the piece I had accepted is one I really like (David Foster Wallace and Kenneth Burke comparison), and it’s one I think will be publishable down the road.  The conference is in San Antonio, which means low cost to me since it’s not far away.  And, I’ve been accepted to participate in their Research Network program, where they group a few of us novices with an experienced mentor (Dr. Michelle Ballif, in my case) for a paper workshopping.  It’s after I graduate so it’ll be out of pocket, but it’s a no-brainer.  Now, I’m also planning on attending the International Society of Narrative conference and presenting part of my thesis there.  It’s in Boston, which means it’ll be a reasonably high cost, but for that one grad school will cover all of it.  Then there’s two regional conferences – one in Albuquerque, one in Houston.  Both will have relatively low cost, but it’s still a cost that I have to consider.  I have to think about what I’m achieving by presenting (a line on the CV plus a very small chance [I am not a charismatic person with people I don’t know] at possible networking or revision ideas for paper) and how much I’m paying for that achievement.  It’s hard to know when it’s not worth it.  How much are each of those CV lines worth when it comes time to apply for adjunct or community college positions?  Impossible to say.  I’ll do at least three this year, maybe four, and review the results next year, I suppose.

Last year I made a policy that I wouldn’t submit any proposals for papers I hadn’t written yet, and that I wouldn’t be on any panels without a strong leader (professor), thinking that would limit my choices and make it easy.  It did not.

In unrelated news, I’m planning on doing quite a bit of work over the break beyond reading.  I have a map of the real-life equivalents to locations within the video game Kentucky Route Zero.  Mostly just doing that for fun – while I have some work on the game being considered for a publication and for a conference, this exercise is more of an excuse to drive around aimlessly and take pictures.  I also have a list of some graveyards to take pictures of for my genealogy work.  Again, more for fun than for work.

What are you reading?  What are you writing?  Speaking of Kentucky Route Zero, a new piece of its incomplete puzzle was just recently released.  I haven’t checked it out yet, but based on this review – “The Entertainment, a southern gothic high school play for the Oculus Rift, seriously. It’s ostensively written in 1973 by Lem Doolittle, a clearly fictitious playwright, although you can purchase the transcript by way of Lulu for $4.50.”

Finally, since my next book to review is a translation, I will share with you this funny Wikipedia article about translating Harry Potter.  In French, Voldemort’s middle name is Elvis.


As promised from last entry, I plan on using this entry to go through some of the things I learned at this year’s Aspen Summer Words Festival workshop, and how those learnins’ have shone through in my recent edits.  First, though, a quick brain dump on gifted stuff.

My article, “A Gifted Education,” was published last week by the Harvard Educational Review.  That’s been a long, long process and I am so thankful for the person who suggested I send it to Harvard, as I never would’ve considered that venue without them.  I have to say, the oddest part of the process (beyond the several rounds of serious edits) was reading this abstract written for an article database:

“A personal narrative is presented about the author’s experience in gifted education programs, focusing on his self-destructive behavior while in school, including substance abuse, and his psychological healing at summer camps run through Western Kentucky University’s Center for Gifted Students.”

No idea who wrote it, no idea if it’s someone I communicated with in the process.  I know it’s not the first time, but it feels like the first time someone has read my writing for a reason other than being obliged to due to personal or educational connections.  It’s fantastic.

THAT SAID – Rereading the piece and talking to people about it has of course gotten me to go through recent news articles for gifted education, which includes the usual handful of articles about identification (New York, Miami), the laments over lack of funding/resources and cutbacks (Chicago, and separately Illinois).  However, hidden among these are a few crumbs of good news, and one especially stood out – the Center for Gifted Studies, the organization which made my childhood orders of magnitude better through their programs, has a nice article about their hosting of the World Conference for the World Council of Gifted and Talented Children.  Very exciting!

No seriously, this entry was going to be about revising.  I made the title “Post-Process” for a reason!

So I’ve been involved in several writing workshops.  For the uninitiated, there’s a few flavors of this type of gathering, with significant overlap between.  Critique groups are groups of writers who meet together on a regular basis for an extended amount of time, and generally don’t have a leader.  Some workshops (usually referred to as retreats or classes) are oriented toward inspiration, and do a variety of brainstorming exercises to start writing, and are less heavy on reviewing each others’ works.  College workshops generally have a good amount of teaching between reviewing the students’ pieces.  Most workshops, though, have a significant segment where the goal is to read one of the participants’ piece and go around the room talking about what it did well and what it didn’t do well.  A common problem with more informal gatherings is that no one wants to give or receive negative opinions on pieces, but a good workshop leader will keep people focused on the writing and limit the interjections of the writer.

In the past year, I’ve been a part of three significantly different workshops.  Two five-day sessions in Aspen, the 2012 one led by author William Loizeaux and the 2013 one led by David Lipsky.  The third was a semester-long class at Texas State led by Tom Grimes.  All three were focused on narrative/creative/memoir nonfiction.

Loizeaux is the teacher I want to be when I lead creative writing workshops.  He obviously reads and rereads the pieces multiple times, and does a great job of having students show off their own writing by inviting them to open the session with their reading out loud.  He differed from the other two workshop leaders in that he very, very rarely referred to outside sources–if he wanted to point to an example of something being done right, he used someone’s piece in the class.  Most of his edits and suggestions were focused on taking the best parts of the piece and making them shine even stronger.

Grimes had a lot more time to work with, and he used it by having us read a wide selection of short nonfiction pieces, most culled from the Best American Essays collections.  He referred to the essays often while leading the workshop of the students’ works.  Most of his edits revolved around removing segments of the workshopped pieces that weren’t working or were tangential to the story – and he removed a lot.  He was often concerned with the tension of the piece, with the motivating of readers to continue on.  One of my favorite mini-lessons from him (which was also featured in his memoir Mentor) was the idea of setting a clock so your reader has a sense of where the story is going, when the story is going to end.  He gave the examples of The Great Gatsby (early on we know it takes place over a summer), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden has ~3 days after being kicked out of school until the winter break begins and he has to go home), and Stop-Time (the opening scene is set in the same day that the book ends).

Lipsky was much much different than the other two in that he cared very little about big picture stuff.  A common suggestion in workshops is to “go into scene more” meaning to show something happening instead of summarizing the event.  Another very common suggestion is to do more dialogue, or less, or to move an event around to make the story have more tension.  Lipsky did little to none of this, instead he was almost entirely concerned with the individual sentence-level stuff going on.  He showed us the minute edits from a galley of David Foster Wallace’s essay “Shipping Out” which makes changes as small as flipping a noun from plural to singular in order to reduce the repetition of a sound.  The majority of Lipsky’s technique involved reading sentences out loud multiple times and to trust the tongue to trip up (the alliteration I just wrote might be guilty of this problem, or might be an example of something working right) where there’s a problem.  We had extended discussions on how different a dash, semi-colon, or parentheses can feel.

In the end, I feel very grateful to have been involved in these three very different experiences.  I feel like I have a peanut gallery of voices to listen to in doing my own edits, and it’s obvious that each contributes to my changes.

Question for you:  What workshop style experiences have worked best, in your experience?

Outside content:  I just discovered how to access my highlighted text from my Kindle on my PC, so some quotes from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

“—Go—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand,—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

“Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?”

“It is a great inconvenience to a man in a haste, that there are three distinct roads between Calais and Paris, in behalf of which there is so much to be said by the several deputies from the towns which lie along them, that half a day is easily lost in settling which you’ll take. First, the road by Lisle and Arras, which is the most about—but most interesting, and instructing. The second, that by Amiens, which you may go, if you would see Chantilly— And that by Beauvais, which you may go, if you will. For this reason a great many chuse to go by Beauvais.”

“—Every thing is good for something, quoth I.”

“That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”

“It would so; said my uncle Toby. Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one? I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby— —Only, cried the corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her— —’Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,—which recommends her to protection—and her brethren with her; ’tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now—where it may be hereafter, heaven knows!—but be it where it will, the brave, Trim! will not use it unkindly.”

“Rub your hands thrice across your foreheads—blow your noses—cleanse your emunctories—sneeze, my good people!—God bless you—”

Yes, you should read the rest.


I overdid the first half of this summer.  In the past two months, I’ve traveled to Seattle, Venezuela, Aruba, Frostburg MD, and Aspen, as well as finished my first year of graduate school.  Fortunately, that time is almost over–only one trip left for quite a while.

My trips to Frostburg and Aspen were both for “conferences.”  The whole conference system is such a fascinating part of academia.  In my experience/reading/conversations, they can be almost equal parts professional/social/vacational (I just made that word up, don’t worry).  I’ve spoken to people who hate going to conferences, and see them largely as a necessary evil + time drain.  In Aspen, several of us compared it to summer camp.  The popular writers’ conference Bread Loaf apparently has the nickname “Bed Loaf,” after what goes on in the evenings.

Frostburg was a purely academic conference.  I discussed it in my last entry – the conference was the 2013 Computers and Writing gathering.  I presented on a panel about crowdfunding, and spent my time outside of that presentation listening to other people’s panels, eating the provided lunches in a gymnasium, checking out Frostburg’s local scenery, and attending a karaoke night targeted directly at the conference-goers.  Two notes on that last one – 1) It had the highest average skill level of any karaoke night I’ve sat through and 2) Apparently we left right before a fist-fight between two conference attendees.  Yes, I was very disappointed.

There’s so much going on with conferences that I have a hard time wrapping my head around all the little facets.  Conference presentations often end up as a line on a student/professor’s resume/CV, even though for most entry-level academics hardly anyone shows up to your presentation and thus there is no metric whatsoever of quality.  If you bomb, or even completely skip out on your presentation, there is nothing stopping you (outside of some rare circumstances) from listing it anyway.  The only thing that gets reviewed (for my field, anyway) is an abstract proposal you submit months before you present or, in most cases, even begin creating your paper/talk.

Then there’s the economic/professional incentives of the conference organizers themselves.  There’s a sense of competition between the hosts of various years when they’re at universities.  The larger ones that are hosted at hotels and conference centers instead of universities receive bids from the hosting locations way in advance to convince them to head that way.  The 4C‘s (composition’s largest conference), for example, will be in Indianapolis next year, and that’s not chosen at random.

Creative writing conferences have their overlaps with academic conferences, but there are a lot of differences as well.  Since they’re not as much for professional development, and most people attending are not academics, there’s a greater sense of the participants wanting to be there.  As I mentioned, several people compared the class to attending summer camps as a kid, in the sense that it’s a brief isolation from your normal life in a space that’s fast-paced, emotionally intense, and slightly uncomfortable.  This analogy holds extra true for my two trips to Aspen: I stayed in a shared hostel room complete with bunk beds both years.

Both types of conferences are known for their social scene.  I have yet to attend something like this that didn’t include an extensive discussion of where the evenings’ drinking would take place, or of hearing whispers of who was hooking up with whom.  Networking of the more professional kind happens at both as well, and a little charisma goes a long, long way in the room.

I’m curious to hear from others on the topic.  When it comes to academic conferences, I have yet to find someone who is more than lukewarm on them–the best thing I’ve heard on the subject is how excited they are to see their friends/ex-colleagues.

I’m also planning on tackling the actual content of the creative writing conference classes I’ve taken in the near future.

Outside content:  Really, really excited that my article’s abstract is up.  Hoping a hard copy is in the mail soon.  A second link since I don’t want to overload the self-promotion (ha-ha, a BLOG trying to limit self-promotion) – an interview between Charlie Rose and David Lipsky, the latter of which was my fantastic instructor in Aspen.

Induction: The Trope of the Digital Decline

It’s the end of the semester, which explains my terrible absence from updates, but it also brings up the subject for this blog.  This time of year is one for listening to people give talks–at graduation, awards ceremonies, conferences, etc.  I’ve had to sit through several of them recently, and I’ve noticed two things that are repeated over and over again:  1)  We need to value everyone’s voice, regardless of their background or identity.  2)  The modern world is getting all of its reading from the internet, and that’s a bad thing.

To me, I feel like these things have a certain amount of dissonance between them.  In fact, I would argue that by putting down the “literature” available digitally is a continuation of classist/elitist attitudes that put us in the position to need to issue statements like Students’ Right to Their Own Language.

But before needing to go even that far, just a reminder that several prominent publications are online only.

  1. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
  2. Slate Magazine
  3. Kairos
  4. Texas State’s own Front Porch Journal
  5. The Onion has a print version available, but is largely online-oriented.

Of course, I think the typical response would be “that’s not what I’m talking about!”  The digital disparager will cite things like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as examples of things that might be dumbing down the reading of the young masses.  But I think the truth is more complicated than that.

When I log onto Facebook, I usually see a slew of news articles from friends, family, professors, and classmates.  These articles come from the New York Times, feminist blogs, foreign publications, and a slew of others.  They are sources that I probably wouldn’t be reading if not for the internet connection into my home.  I log onto Reddit and am part of a book club; we’re discussing Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman this month.  On Twitter, I find out what topics come up at conferences I can’t attend, and I learn about what events authors and publications I enjoy are taking part in.

And I also look at pictures of cats.

Again, the digital disparager might say, “that’s not what I’m talking about.”  After all, the circles I travel in lean toward academia already, so it’s not fair to use them as representatives of the vast online world, is it?

But the truth of the matter is that the segment of the population who shies away from intellectual reading online are people who probably would be shying away from these things even if they weren’t online.  The other truth in the matter is that there are some big literary/intellectual achievements out there, online, that are pretty far removed from the traditional, canonical world of ivory towers and leather-bound covers.  Laugh if you’d like, but I would argue that things like The Book of Brodin, this dramatic recut of The Big Lebowski trailer (or, slightly more entertaining, this Gran Torino / Up mash-up), or this collection of movie still cinemagraphs are just as worthy of our critical and popular attention as book award finalists.  Yes, their audience is different, and yes, their authorship is different, but in artistic terms, why would we even begin to consider them as somehow less than their pre-digital predecessors?

Henry James once said that “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.  The rest of the madness is art.”  To discredit the products of the digital world is to discredit the passions of a group of people solely because their lived experience and products are different from what you have come to expect of art.

Once again, do you see some parallels between this and the need for Students’ Right to Their Own Language?


Analyze the collage of Harry Potter scenes present in this musical YouTube mashup.  For our next class, bring in a 3-4 page commentary on why these scenes might have been chosen, and what it achieves for the audience.  You may also critique the use of autotune, especially as it varies between characters.


Lots going on right now.

  • I had a piece published in the Indianapolis based mag Punchnel’s, which has a ton of smart stuff that you should be reading.  Their site is here, my piece is here.  It’s a short, humorous essay about iced tea, and looks satirically at the way we can be so judgmental about personal preference.  I learned a few interesting things during the writing and publishing of it:
    • I feel the need to constantly clarify that I adopted a persona for this piece when sharing it with people.  It’s sort of ridiculous to assume that people wouldn’t know that at first blush, but I’m still insecure about someone thinking I’m serious in the denunciations of the piece.  I got the idea while looking at a pitcher of lemonade and a pitcher of tea sitting in front of me at a buffet, and thinking about how hard it was to find some good iced tea in Aspen, Colorado.
    • Less is more.  I had a section in this essay about long island iced tea, which didn’t fit in with the other items in the list at all.  I had put it in because I felt the piece was too short and so I stretched for more material, but the first thing the editor did was ask if they could remove it.
  • Current writing projects:  Aspen is like a movie set, comparison to the uncanny valley of animation/robotics.  Started this last summer, not happy with it, trying again.  Also, I got the genealogy bug last summer, and I’ve been having a hard time explaining the appeal verbally to friends and family, so I’m trying in essay format.  By the way, if your family is from western Kentucky, we’re probably related.  Finally, polishing up an essay about David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram“, in which he explains how dangerous television can be to the psyche.  I use scholar Kenneth Burke to argue that Wallace is describing a very purposeful, rhetorical move on the part of television to captivate audiences by simultaneously making them feel like they are part of the TV world and that everything outside of the TV world is not good enough.
  • And, finally, I’ll a part of two different panels on university Writing Centers tomorrow.  One is on the differences between small and large writing centers and how they can learn from each other, the other is on strategies for English Language Learner writing tutoring.  In writing the piece for the ELL panel, I realized that there is a big similarity between the difficulty of describing effective ELL strategies and Gifted Education strategies–namely, that a “good” ELL or Gifted strategy will almost always apply to education as a whole.  Broad concepts like being flexible, listening to the needs of the individual student, and building mutual respect are especially important for a student who might not be as comfortable in the peer/academic environment, but how could you argue that you shouldn’t practice those things at all times?   You can’t, and it’s hard to verbalize,  but the fact is as educators we can’t be all things at all times and we need to know when to emphasize what aspects of our pedagogy.  I’m not sure how useful that is to think about.

What’s going on in your life?  Here’s your outside content for today, David Lipsky being interviewed by Charlie Rose.  Lipsky will be at the Aspen Summer Words Festival this year, which makes me much more hopeful about returning.

On Sincerity and Authenticity

Last night in my Composition Pedagogy class we covered expressivist and rhetorical pedagogies.  I know, I know, try to contain your excitement.  Anyway, I was in charge of teaching the rhetorical section, and like many English majors in their late twenties, I am slightly obsessed with David Foster Wallace.  Because of this, I used his 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech, commonly titled “This is Water“, as part of my lesson.  My logic was that speeches are often analyzed in composition classes for their rhetorical content (Identify the Ethos, Logos, and Pathos that Martin Luther King Jr. uses in his “I Have a Dream Speech”, etc.), and that Foster Wallace often makes arguments about the rhetorical presentation/nature of writing (“Tense Present“) and other cultural phenomena (“E Unibus Pluram“).

I expected part of the class to not like it.  It’s a long speech, and we could only listen to the first 1/4 of it.  Much like his writing, some of the speech feels overwrought to the point of being tedious (which is the same thing that makes most of his fiction and some of his essays out of reach of my enjoyment).  However, I didn’t expect the majority of the class to disagree with both his content and his style, which is what happened.

Some context:  We spent the first half of the class discussing expressivist pedagogy, which came to power in the 1960s.  If composition itself is traditionally concerned with the writer, the reader, the text, and the reality/truth, expressivists are the ones who put the writer at the top of the chain.  Practices like freewriting or trying to find an “authentic” voice are closely associated with this theory.  In class, we spent a lot of time discussing what having an authentic voice meant, and whether or not it was the same as sincerity.  The general tone of the class agreed with the postmodern idea that there’s no such thing as having one voice, that we are comprised of many voices.

Now, when you start talking about David Foster Wallace, discussing whether his voice is authentic or sincere leads to some complex stuff.  On one hand, the man wrote frequently against the overuse of irony that permeates modern American culture and told Charlie Rose that his pushing the boundaries of text with his signature injections of footnotes are an attempt to portray the convoluted reality of thoughts.  On the other hand, it’s been reported that he made up pieces of his supposedly nonfiction essays to dramatize the story.  Now, whether or not that makes him inauthentic, insincere, or whatever negative adjective you choose to use is up for an engaging debate.

However, in class last night I was disappointed to hear those critical of his commencement address refer to it as being overly ironic, and even “hipster” (a reference to their interpretation that part of the style of the speech was an attempt to seem cool).  The biggest contributor to this attitude were the instances in the beginning of the address where he acknowledges the expectations (mostly negative) of what a commencement speech entails and then proceeds to work within those expectations while simultaneously seeming to mock them.  And, I think, interpreting that action as an attempt at irony is not illogical.  What I would argue, though, is that by acknowledging the social/cultural expectations and boundaries that he and the event are subject to, and then working within them, he is not being ironic.  In fact, I would argue he is being more authentic by making his audience cognizant of these factors.

But, I don’t know.  How do we walk the line between authentic, self-aware, and likable/readable in our writing?  Is there a point to looking for a voice, authentic or not, in your writing?

Your external content of the day looks at adding a new voice, literally, to poems.  Motionpoems takes poetry and adds video/audio to them.  Having met a couple of the poets who received the treatment, the dissonance between the voice used in the video and their real voice is highly entertaining.

Welcome to the New Year

Let me open with a quick news round-up from Gifted Education:

2013 doesn’t look good for the return of federal funding for Gifted Education.  Refunding the Javits Act is not included in Obama’s new budget, and the TALENT act is still in limbo in Congress.  Please consider calling your representative in the House of Representatives and asking them to support the TALENT act.  For more information on these and other legislative issues related to Gifted Education, check out the NAGC page on the topic.

January 12, the New York Times published another in a long line of articles about race disparity in gifted classrooms.  I liked this article because it dug in really deep and tried to identify some of the reasons why the identification process is flawed, but I wish it hadn’t stopped short of saying that a lot of the identification measures are skewed toward not just the class/race majority, but also toward achievers and teacher pleasers, not academically gifted fast learners.

January 22, CNET writes that Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” is set to produce a TV show entitled “Prodigies”, which would look at young geniuses (the initial list in the article is STEM oriented, but the associated Youtube channel includes creative/athletic prodigies as well).  I’m curious to see how this turns out, as it could lead to a heightened awareness of the needs of the academically gifted and the difficulty for a lot of people to fulfill those needs, or it could emphasize stereotypes and lead to a “child beauty pageant”-like side-show effect.  Given the current state of reality television, I don’t have high hopes.

Finally, the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children has announced its 2013 conference will be held in Louisville, KY August 10-14.  I’m especially excited about it, as Dr. Julia Roberts is one of my personal heroes and I’m glad to see her heavily involved with this.  If you’re interested in applying to present, the deadline is May 25.  Bonus – the keynote speaker is Dr. Joseph Renzulli, and if you’ve done any research at all in Gifted Education, I’m sure you’re familiar with his name.

In my world, a new year also begins a new semester of graduate school.  This spring I’m spending an entire class looking at creative nonfiction, both memoirs and essays, taught by author Tom Grimes.  In one of the first pieces we read this semester, Adam Gopnik’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008, he describes the three types of essays:  the review essay, the memoir essay, and the odd-object essay.  The first two are simple, a review of a book, an event, a place, or something else; and a personal experience with broader meaning.  The last one, however, struck my interest the most.  Gopnik describes odd-object essays as using small objects to talk about large subjects, the same way that Atul Gawande uses dental health to segue into our current societal attitudes to end-of-life finances and medical care in one of the first essays of the book, “The Way We Age Now”.  The more I think about this idea, of zooming in on something and then panning out to gain meaning and relation, the more I think this applies to every essay, even if the odd-object is instead an event, a person, or a completely normal object.  After all, aren’t many reviews of creative works used to comment on the genre or medium as a whole?  I’m thinking specifically of the recent reviews of The Hobbit which became a critique of the–apparently–too realistic quality of 48 FPS and 3D on a huge screen.  And, are personal essays meaningful/valuable if they don’t connect on a more global level with people’s experiences that are not the same?   Another example from this book, Bernard Cooper’s essay “The Constant Gardener”, describes caring for his HIV infected partner, an experience that I haven’t come anywhere close to.  Yet the questions this essay addresses:  What will we do for those we love?  How will we measure up in the face of overwhelming life events?  What qualities do we bring to a relationship, and what qualities do we need in a successful one? all pertain to my life, and are all questions I’ve pondered in some form before.

“The essay begins with an ordinary object–a goldfish dies–and ends, the essayist hopes, with an unexpected subject: what is death?” -Gopnik, xviii

Likewise, in my writing that I’ve discussed in this blog, I seek to draw a line in the reader’s mind between my grade school experiences and gifted education as a whole.  It is also possible to look at gifted education specifically and use it as a perspective on our culture’s attitudes toward education and academic achievement on a broader scale.  What Gopnik describes in naming the odd-object essay isn’t reserved for good essays, but for good writing in general.

Choices, Choices

As I mentioned last entry, I was lucky enough to have a memoir-essay accepted for publication about my experience as a gifted student that ended up dropping out of high school to attend college early.  It’s not a happy story; I didn’t do well in college and the problems that led to that decision were fairly severe.  However, it’s one of the first things I’ve written where I felt I had a lot more to say on the subject, and that it was within my ability to continue saying it.

This semester, as part of my graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition, I’m taking a course entitled “Narrative Ways of Knowing”.  The assignments in that class have allowed me to continue following this strand of work.

For the first assignment, which asked us to think critically about a teaching, learning, or writing experience, I elaborated on a bit of cognitive dissonance in my own thinking.  As a student of education and the liberal arts in general, I nod my head vigorously in class when we talk about the dominant culture imposing its will subconsciously via culturally biased testing and evaluations.  I know that it’s very common for students to be labeled as needing special education because they are English language learners, or because their learning style doesn’t match up with the classroom setting, or because of home life factors outside of their control.  I know that tracking is often used as a modern-day segregation, and that it typically uses outdated methodology, and that there’s little accountability for revisiting these categorizations later in the child’s career.  I know that these biased actions hurt the child and the system overall, and that this casts doubt on any program, aimed at top or bottom, that doesn’t promote mainstreaming and least restrictive environments.

Despite “knowing” all of this, I look back on my own education and feel that the parts I benefited from the most, and the parts that I advocate strongest for to others, are the parts that were as far from mainstreaming as you can get.  Primarily, summer camps that required standardized testing scores for access, and pullout GT classes.

My conclusion for the paper was that in theory, mainstreaming is the way.  But, once you consider how poorly teachers are paid, how little training the average teacher has in gifted OR special education, how large the class sizes are, and how fast school budgets are shrinking, it’s hard to imagine mainstreaming as being a realistic possibility.  It’s because of that, that I fall back on well thought out pull-out programs (including super cool initiatives like college early entrance academies – see TAMS in Texas, the Gatton School in Kentucky, as well as a slew of others).  Ultimately, I believe that we need to keep as many options on the table as possible, from grade-skipping to dual-credit high school classes, as every student’s needs are different.  But, at the same time, we need to be pragmatic about the availability of the resources for such services.

In our second assignment, we were asked to interview someone else and reflect critically on a particular experience they shared in the interview.  I ended up interviewing Tracy Weinberg, Associate Director of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented.  We had a wonderful talk and spoke very broadly about gifted education, and I ended up writing a paper delving into a few of his anecdotes and comparing them to the experiences I went through, as well as those of my friends.

For our final paper, we need to extend these lines of thoughts and incorporate scholarly sources into the fold.  I have a few ideas, but am unsure of how to proceed:

  • Identification sucking the air out of the room.  Discussion of gifted education is often so dominated by the identification topic that little attention gets paid to the fact that services for those that do get identified are lacking or nonexistent.  Con: Unsure of good way to weave scholarly sources in.
  • Dissonance in how we treat students gifted athletically versus students gifted academically.  Tons of scholarly material depicting both processes, and at least one article looking at this discrepancy in particular.  Con:  Difficult to make coherent connection to my first two papers.  (As an example, imagine reshaping this article to be about an academically gifted student.)
  • Same as second idea, but comparing approaches to special versus gifted education in a similar way.  Same con.
  • Something else riffing on the debate over mainstreaming or not.

Your help would be appreciated!  What topics that are related to our culture’s treatment of gifted education interest you?

For your outside perusal today, a recent article on the lack of meaningful, widely available gifted education – Young, Gifted, and Neglected

Stories as Life, Life as Stories

In the past year or so, my work and my interests have been pushed heavily toward personal storytelling.  Call it what you want–narrative, creative nonfiction, memoir–I’ve been all about it.  Last year, my first real publication came thanks to Texas State University’s Front Porch Journal with a short piece I wrote entitled “The Language of Cancer“, and while the piece wasn’t about my own experience, it was a breakaway from the traditional fictional short stories I had been writing.  Since then, I was able to attend an awesome workshop at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in Narrative Nonfiction with Bill Loizeaux, and I’ve had a second, more personal nonfiction piece published again by Front Porch called “Elastic“.  Finally, I found out that the Harvard Educational Review is going to publish an essay I wrote on my experience as an academically gifted high school student.

And while I’m still writing fiction, I’m becoming more and more enamored with the romanticism of putting a personal story out there for an audience.  There’s the obvious example of the power of This American Life, but I’m excited for more, like the very cool Radio Ambulante which is providing a similar Latino-centric voice.  There’s the slew of really, really good memoirs and combination memoir/biography+contemplations that have popped up in the past few years.  I’m thinking here of some more clasically structured memoirs like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal, and Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, but also books that have nudged the boundaries of the genre, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother, and David Lipsky’s Although You End Up Becoming Yourself (also see his older work Absolutely American for a fantastic bit of storytelling+investigative journalism) (also, this hybridity deserves more, later).  And finally, there’s the inherent storytelling aspect to our increasing reliance on social-based news sources and media.  Is reality television an extension of this?

Which is to say that I am all about some creative nonfiction right now.  I’m also lucky enough to be in a graduate class on narrative research, and I’ve used that class to springboard into further work on the stories I want to tell, specifically more on gifted education.

One of the topics that frequently comes up in class discussion is the difference between a fictional and a nonfictional narrative.  I don’t have a good answer for that, yet.  On one hand, as a reader, I feel like knowing whether a story is true or not should not influence my enjoyment of it.  On the other hand, I feel drawn toward these stories that are labeled as true, which I hope is not just because of that label, but because of some combination of content and format that elicits an innate resonance in me….  Or maybe it’s just really good marketing.  From a writerly point of view, though, I think the nonfiction approach invites you to use outside content in a way that fiction doesn’t necessarily do–the stories of others, research, things the reader can follow up on (thinking of Eating Animals a lot here, but others as well).  Not that fiction can’t supply these things as well, but the cohesion level is rarely the same.

Questions for you, reader:
Why does a “true” memoir versus a fictional memoir hold more or less value for you?  Is it a false dichotomy?
What are your favorite sources of personal storytelling?

And, finally, a bit of humor for the day after elections – Nate Silver 2.0