Tagged: memoir

Personal Vanishing Point

I apologize for my last entry, in which I sat down to write a blog entry on the impetus that I hadn’t written a blog entry in a while, instead of the impetus of having something to say.

I have something to say, this time!

I’m about to finish the book Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, which is a fantastic memoir based around her discovering she had cancer in the jaw at 10 years old, and the subsequent experience with operations, chemo, and radiation.  (Side note here, one day I want to teach a class entirely around the illness memoir.  This book, Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life, and William Loizeaux’s Anna are just so, so good.  Also, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story might be one of my favorite books ever, if you wanted to go that route.)  One of the big parts of this book is her beginning to identify herself as her illness, as her ugliness, as her disfigurement.

“This singularity of meaning–I was my face, I was ugliness–though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape.  It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life.  Everything led to it, everything receded from it–my face as personal vanishing point.”

One of the things that makes a memoir remarkable is the ability to take the foreign experience and distill it into a universal.  In this case, the foreign is having this cancer, specifically at such a young age.  The universal is that most, if not all, of us have had something in our life that has become our own “personal vanishing point.”  That could be something as mundane as acne, as reflective as children, or as capitalist as our jobs.  Some small aspect of our identity, of who we are as people that actually becomes our entire idea of self.

For me, in middle and high school, my identity felt dangerously intertwined with being “the smart kid”.  A lot of times I felt like that was the only thing people associated with “Graham”.  I pushed back against this, sometimes in self-destructive ways, but ultimately one of the best things for the problem was summer camp.  At the time, I wrote (paraphrasing) that gifted summer programming gave me an environment where everyone was “the smart kid” so I could be known for something more.  (Quick note, as I mentioned last entry, NSGT has some scholarships available for summer camp.  I went to ones through the Center for Gifted Studies out of WKU, but you can find similar programs across the country.  Duke TIP is probably one of the best places to look for info.)

A dozen years and a lot of life experience later, I no longer have that same level of identification.  Sometimes there’s still echoes of it though, and yesterday in class was one of those days.  We were discussing what should be taught in college freshman composition classrooms, and we were being critical of the current practice of basing performance metrics entirely on the academic, majority culture discourse.  Basically, we define success in the classroom largely based on standards made by old white men.  I agree, this is a bad thing, but I think we have to be very careful about how we go about solving this problem.  As an example, another student in the class responded to the proposal of having an optional, concurrent remedial course by saying that if a large group of students need a review of the topic sentence, it should be just be taught during the normal classroom.

I got emotional at this, and I tried to respond, but I did a bad job because I wasn’t able to articulate the thoughts that this idea raises in me.  What this idea suggests, to me, is the basic philosophy that can be used to justify policies like NCLB.  The idea that because we don’t want to do tracking, because all tracking is inherently bad, we should therefore teach everything to everyone.  In a perfect world, this makes sense, because in a perfect world the instructor works on the individual level, and the overall coursework is not as important as the growth of each student.  As we all know, though, no teacher has the time to realistically do that, so by shifting the content downward, we are simply excluding a different group of students.  (Two side notes:  This is essentially why I dropped out of high school, and raising expectations typically leads to improved results.)

Now, the typical rebuttal to this idea is to again question the standards we are attempting to “raise the bar” on, and whose standards and values those reflect.  And I agree, we do need to question those values and standards.  But in the process of questioning them, we need to keep in mind this question:  What do we seek to accomplish by teaching a class?  By the educational process?  Unless you want to work off the assumption that it’s realistic to envision a world without grades, and therefore without some sort of graduation process, then I’m going to assume that we, as educators, seek to accomplish eliciting growth and effort within and from our students.  If that’s the case, we need to keep that in relation to how we are going to measure that growth, that effort.  By necessity, that’s going to require some kind of goals, standards, objectives, whatever you want to call them.  Now, universal standards are not the right answer–most people can agree with that.  But in the process of you, personally, figuring out what those standards should be–whether it be for your classroom, your children, or whatever–beware of rejecting the current model without having a well thought-out one to replace it.

For your external content, I highly recommend checking out this Youtube video which does a great job visualizing some math concepts in a way that makes them insanely interesting, even for little old English major me.  If you check out the creator’s channel, there’s a lot more in the same vein.


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.

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