The Goodness of Students

Many readers of this blog know that late last February I was in Christchurch, New Zealand—and in the cathedral there—when the big earthquake hit.  I and two friends were separated and shaken up pretty badly but escaped with only cuts and bruises. The downtown core was pretty much destroyed and a huge area, including what was left of our hotel, was cordoned off.  So we ended up in a huge park in a very cold rain along with 2500 other people before being taken in by four students from Christchurch’s Canterbury College.  While they had no power or water, the flat they were renting near the university was safe, and over the next two days these young men helped us get prescription medicines and other necessities and in general took splendid care of us.  They were generous, thoughtful, and very witty.  What, we thought, could we ever do in return?

What we eventually did was to cash in frequent flyer miles and bring these four “Christchurch champs” to San Francisco for a two-week visit, which ended just a couple of weeks ago.  It was snowing when they left New Zealand, so as soon as we got to my condo near Stanford they were off to the pool, taking in all the sun and warmth.  Over the next days, we visited Facebook headquarters, toured the University (four are engineering students, one a computer scientist), walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, took in a Giants game (or “match” as they called it), and visited Alcatraz.  Later we went up the northern California coast for some  hiking, biking, kayaking, and eating—I can’t remember cooking so much for a long, long time (“could you make another one of those chocolate cakes?”  I could, and did.)  I learned about their families, their best “mates,” and their ambitions, hopes, and dreams.  When I put them on the plane two weeks later, I was a bit teary-eyed; what goodness and joy had come out of that tragedy in Christchurch just six months e

Shortly after these young men returned home (they faced a series of exams and papers the moment they got back!), our fall term started and I stood outside my building watching the new students and their families streaming across campus.  I felt, as I do every September, that I am the luckiest person alive, that being among college students has been the gift of a lifetime for me.  Now I have taught my first week of classes:  a second-year writing class on “Word, Image, Sound, Silence:  Graphic Narratives,” on “Neil Gaiman: International Man of Mystery” (this course team taught with an undergraduate who designed the class), and a grad seminar on “The Future of English Studies.”  I have seen my first pieces of writing, done my first tutoring in our writing center, and set up my first conferences. 

So today I am thinking about you – all of the teachers across the country who are also deep into their fall teaching, deep into their working with students.  In nearly 45 years of teaching, I have found solace, strength, and sometimes courage in teaching, in connecting with college students.  I wonder how many of you have had the same experience?

The Pleasure of Visiting with Teachers

This week I spent a grand day in Omaha, enjoying a picture perfect day in early autumn:  when I arrived the skies cleared, the sun emerged, and the air was soft and warm with just a tiny hint of fall to come, quite a change from the nightmarish weather conditions plaguing so much of the country.  The weather matched my own sunny mood, which always accompanies me on visits to colleagues on their home campuses.  I am certain that if our nay-saying legislators and government officials would travel with me (or on their own!) and spend time on our college campuses they would be impressed with how much quality work is being done in writing instruction and support—and always with radically dwindling resources. They would be moved, as well, by the devotion to learning and to students that forms the foundation of writing programs and writing centers in this country.

On this particular day, I spent a busy and inspiring day at the University of Nebraska, Omaha with Nora Bacon and later at Creighton with Bob Whipple—along with their fabulous colleagues and students.  At both schools I talked with teachers who are thinking deeply about curricular challenges in the digital age, about how best to support students at every level and across all differences, about what classroom strategies can yield the deepest and most long lasting learning, and about how to work effectively together to build and sustain highly flexible and adaptive programs that meet students where they are and then work collaboratively with those students to take them to the next level—and the next.  Writing teachers and WPAs in this country know how to get this job done, and they deserve the appreciation, respect, and support of their universities, their communities, their policy makers, and especially their funders.  To those policy makers and funders, I say “Writing programs have built it.  And the students have come.  Now YOU come to see what excellence really looks like.”

So now back home in California, I’d like to announce Andrea Lunsford’s Appreciation Week (heck, make it Appreciation Month) for teachers of writing everywhere.  You deserve it!


Reflections on 9/11 ten years later

Like almost everyone in the country, I have spent much of this last week thinking about the events of ten years ago.  On September 11, 2001, my radio alarm came on at 6:30 as always, to NPR.  Only on this morning what I heard literally threw me out of bed and into the national maelstrom.  Like so many on the West coast, I first just crouched in stunned horror, staring at CNN, trying to assimilate what had happened:  when the twin towers finally collapsed it was as if the entire country felt the shock waves and the  heat and the smoke and, most of all, the grief roaring out of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.   

And all I could think about, after the first horror, were students:  young people everywhere.  What was happening in the New York schools?  How were the teachers coping – and the little ones, the little ones.  Who would go home to find no mom, or no dad, or no grandparents?  Superimposed, for me, on the images of the towers on fire and melting, were the faces of all the students I had ever taught.  After a while I stopped pacing, turned off the TV, lay down on the floor, and wept. 

Later, I went to my office, where we had been in the midst of preparations for orientation; I was training staff and organizing a series of events for the incoming class of 2005, the group I had chosen to follow for what turned out to be a six-year longitudinal study.  But would we be able to hold orientation?  Would students be able to get to campus?  And what kind of thoughts and memories would they be bringing with them?  Again like so many others, I felt completely inadequate.  Yet in California, we tried to take our cues from those on the front lines:  we had jobs to do and we intended to do them.  So we proceeded with our plans and, indeed, we were able to open the fall term on time: the students arrived, some badly shaken and all of them chastened, somber, sad.

And what did I have to offer them?  Though it felt like way too little, I offered what I always do:  language.  Language–that can help us name and articulate what seems unfathomable, unspeakable, unbearable.  Language—that can bring us together, linking us in determination and fortitude.  Language—that can honor and praise and give testimony to heroism and courage even as it can also name and describe the face of evil.  Many would say that language has no such powers, but I can’t accept that judgment.  When Wayne Booth looked out at a packed room of teachers during the Vietnam days and said something very nearly like “Rhetoric is our only real alternative to war,” I believed him.  And I still do.  So on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I am preparing to greet yet another incoming class.  And I will offer them language, and rhetoric, and, I pray, the power and the will to use those tools not only to survive but to prosper–in peace.