Thoughts on the Inauguration and MLK Day 2013

January 21, 2013

I have been glued to the television since 7:30 a.m., switching channels and trying to absorb as much as I possibly can of the second inauguration of President Obama.  There have been 12 presidents in my lifetime:  I don’t remember Roosevelt, was vaguely aware of Truman, then much more aware of Eisenhower, who captivated me with his handsome uniform.  I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1960 for Kennedy, though I worked for him on my college campus; this was the first election to which I was completely devoted.  And I have tried to observe every inauguration since then, even when I had worked actively against the person being inaugurated.  There’s something about the peaceful change of power that marks the very best of America, and it is something I honor, not least because of the lessons it teaches all of us.

This year, while the official inauguration oath took place on January 20, a Sunday, the inauguration ceremonies all occurred on January 21, Martin Luther King Day.  I have celebrated this day since 1986 (though it was not recognized in all 50 states until 2000) and have been committed to King since much earlier:  as a teenager living in the deep south, I followed his crusade, supported his cause, and grieved his death.  I think it’s fair to say that King’s values have influenced me more than those of any other 20th century figure; I’ve learned so very much about the terrible pitfalls as well as the potential of this country—and about myself and my own biases and blindnesses.

I love it that we now have a National Day of Service and that millions of us turn out on that day (as well as on many other days) to plant trees, clean up streams, distribute food, and otherwise try to help others.  That’s something that carries on King’s legacy as well as the legacy of many of our Presidents, including President Obama.  When I think about “service” in general, I always think about teachers.  In my view, teachers provide a special kind of service, service that aims to reach every child, adolescent, and adult through education, service that rarely calls attention to itself, service that should be free and available to all.  And I’m thinking here not only of “official” teachers but of all those teachers at work in more informal ways.  I think of my own teachers—all those “official” teachers who helped me make my way through school but so many others, from my Grandmother, Rosa May Iowa Brewer Cunningham, who proudly graduated from the 8th grade in her Quaker community and who taught me lessons of commitment, courage, and what she would have called “sticktoitiveness”—to  the many, many others from whom I have learned (including, today, the President and Vice President and their fabulous wives).

So today, Inauguration Day and Martin Luther King Day, 2013, I pause to remember and honor teachers everywhere.  I am watching all the pageantry–the inaugural ceremony itself, the fancy luncheon, the inaugural parade, later on the inaugural balls—and thinking of how much teaching is going on today, and how much teaching needs to go on after this day is over.

Who’s Your Mentor?

Over the holidays, I have received a number of cards from students for whom I served as a mentor, either formal or informal, like this one:

     I am so thankful to have you in my life. Thank you for all the support, guidance, and time you’ve given me over the years. Happy, happy holidays!

Every teacher loves getting messages like this one, of course, but this year such messages have made me think about mentoring, about mentors in my own life and about how often mentors are found rather than assigned.  When I think back to my own undergraduate years, I can recall one mentor vividly:  Dr. Robert Bryan.  He taught my introductory humanities course, and it was a big lecture class where we sat and dutifully took notes while he introduced us to “great works.”  I doubt if he knew who I was (other than a name on his roster), but it was in his class that I first seriously engaged William Faulkner, first read Kafka, and first attempted serious close reading.  So as the years went on, I got up my courage and went to office hours, always with a couple of questions I wanted to ask (one I remember is “who is the greatest American playwright and why?” though now I can’t remember his answer). What I do remember is that Dr. Bryan took my questions seriously and encouraged me to keep on reading.  In my senior year, I labored over a timeline tracing out works of British and American literature and trying to fill in historical events, great works of art, etc.  Of course this was long before computers (I had a manual typewriter), so my timeline was a long scroll of paper, which I eventually took to Dr. Bryan’s office.  We unrolled it and he helped me fill in some (big) gaps, and then he asked if I would like to come over and have tea with him and his wife.  That was the first and only time any faculty member invited me into his or her home, and I was thrilled.  I went and we had tea and the three of us talked about what we still wanted to read:  I left with a long list of “must reads” for after graduation. 

            I don’t know if Robert Bryan considered himself a mentor to me—and I don’t even know if I knew the word at that point.  But he was a mentor, and a grand one, and he was one that I sought out: in that sense, he was a found mentor, and the more I think about mentorship, the more I think that those are the best kind.  When I got to graduate school, almost a decade later, I was fortunate to have Edward P. J. Corbett as a mentor—and again, he was one I sought out and “found.”  Since Ohio State had no formal courses in rhetoric and composition at that time, I asked Dr. Corbett if he would let me do a series of directed readings with him, and I just started with Plato and Aristotle and kept on reading right up to Kenneth Burke.  I would go into his office every week and, like Robert Bryan, he took my beginner’s thoughts on rhetoric seriously, even if they were half baked (as I’m afraid they often were).  We kept this up for years, and thanks to Ed and his mentorship, I read and wrote and talked my way into the field.

            Every year, I have students I am assigned to mentor, and sometimes they work out wonderfully:  last year, one of these students, graduated with honors English and is now in graduate school preparing to be a teacher.  But more often, the students that “find” me (often in the writing center, but other times just in casual meetings) create more successful mentoring relationships. Often these begin, as I did, with a visit to office hours.  Often they continue for years, well beyond undergrad school:  the note above, for instance, comes from a student who graduated five years ago.  So I’ve learned over the years to be mindful of the students who just show up, wanting to talk.  They aren’t always looking for a mentor—but sometimes they are, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it.  My job, as I see it, is to listen hard and to talk with the student as a colleague, as a fellow seeker of knowledge and understanding—and to give the best advice I can offer if it’s asked for but mostly, mainly, to listen and to take the time to respect the ideas presented.  They are often a great gift.

Here at the beginning of 2013, I think about my own mentors and I think about the students I have been privileged to mentor over the forty-some years of my teaching career.  I hope to live up to the example set for me by Professors Bryan and Corbett.  That’s a good enough New Year’s Resolution for me, and maybe one you might consider.  Who have been your best mentors, and why?



Since I often teach a course on Memoria, the fourth canon of rhetoric, I tend to think about memory—how, why, and when we remember.  As 2012 draws to a close, I’ve been looking back over this year and noting major memories:  sailing out of Fort Lauderdale under sunny skies on January 17, headed for a round the world adventure; playing with kids in a dirt playground in Accra, Ghana, and getting really dirty having all that fun; seeing the full moon at sea with no land in sight: I have never felt more small, or more alive; crouching and sweating in the tunnels of Co Chi, Vietnam, hyperventilating until I could get to an exit; walking through the rain in Kyoto, cherry blossoms swirling around me like wisps of clouds; coming home to grandnieces Lila and Audrey, who said “Aunt A, never be gone again for four months.  Never.”  And so many other memories, both good and bad—and some very, very bad.  But I claim them all, and I have tried, over the year, to put at least some of them into words on this blog and another one I keep.   I think about whether these writings will preserve my memories, or whether they will replace those memories, as Vladimir Nabokov said happened when he “committed” a character to words, and the real person, whose memory inspired the character, slipped away.

                                                            –Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s haunting image of Mnemosnye

Over some thirty years, I’ve been asking students and colleagues (and assorted others) what they remember about their early reading and writing.  I learned early on that many associate reading with pleasure and escape, writing with punishment or being bad.  I have met hundreds of people who had to write “I will not xxxxx” a hundred times on a blackboard, or copy out Bible verses after talking out of turn, or who had to sit on their left hands in order to “break” their left-handedness in writing.  Students today continue to echo these stories, and teachers of writing need to remember that students bring their own memories about writing to college with them.  Many students I talk to open the conversation by saying something like “well, I’ve never been good at writing,” or “When I was little I liked writing, but that changed when I got to school and found out I wasn’t following all the rules,” or “to me, writing is always a pain.”  Knowing that students bring such baggage doesn’t help me unpack it in a day, but it does make me more sensitive to students and much more careful about the kinds of assignments I give, especially early on in the term.  I’m looking for assignments at which students can succeed, assignments that will build engagement and confidence.  Criticism doesn’t fly out the window, of course, but it is always couched in respectful and positive ways.  At the end of the class, I always like to ask the students to take a little “memory inventory” of our course:  what are the most memorable moments or events or elements to them?  And I use what they come up with as a springboard for building a set of goals for the future, for articulating what they most want to do next in terms of writing.

I’m wondering right now what your memory inventory for 2012 might look like.  And even more, what your students’ inventories of their memories of the class they shared with you might look like.  My guess is that you’d be pleased to hear about those memories.