Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Letter #93--More Amazing Colleagues

Dear Governor Ducey,

            A few weeks ago, I wrote you about how my creative writing are amazing writers and teachers. Lasti Friday, I attended a breakfast with the Board of Regents with a few invited faculty members from NAU to talk about how faculty research impacts undergraduate students. Faculty don’t have many opportunities to hear what their fellow faculty work on—which is too bad because these people are as amazing as my English Department colleagues. To wit:
            Nancy Johnson, NAU’s newest Regent’s Professor in the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, talked about mycorrhizae—the symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants. Underground, microscopic tubes of mycelium (mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelia) bring nutrients to plants. In her environmental science class, she wanted to research fungi on farms but there aren’t many farms in Flagstaff. One of her Navajo students told her he planned to begin farming his grandfather’s plot on the reservation. Together, they applied for grants and hope to begin research on this farm to study mycorrhizal relationships together.
            Jani Ingram, Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor, noted how one of her Navajo students was particularly good at calibrating equipment because he worked as a jeweler, making him indispensible in the field. Michael Rulon, a 19th century French Literature professor, brings his scholarship to teach students in global engineering how to develop international communication. Chrissina Burke, a lecturer in anthropology, took a contingent of undergraduates to uncover Mayan ruins, teaching them archaeological practices from lab work to fieldwork to grant writing.
            Ethnic Studies Professor Mark Montoya talked about the STAR program, which prepares at-risk students for college, and how writing from one’s cultural point of view empowers students. Professor Laura Gray-Rosendale, who directs the English portion of the STAR program, noted that NAU’s online English graduate programs were ranked #1 in the country by GradSource. Dr. Gray-Rosendale, who is working on a book about teaching personal writing in the digital age, also wrote College Girl, a memoir that explores her college experiences and how she became interested in rhetoric as a way of talking about those college experiences. Daniel Eadens’ new book, Social Justice Instruction: Empowerment on the Chalkboard, offers strategies for teaching social justice concepts across subject areas from kindergarten through college. Because I write, edit, and publish my students know how to write, edit, and publish. We can also host big cultural events. My students attended the international NonfictioNOW conference at NAU last year. This year, students who were part of that conference will help host the Northern Arizona Book Festival October 10-16 and attend the next conference in Reykjavik.
            David Wagner, Professor of Biological Sciences and table-host extraordinaire, works with microorganisms and bacteria like anthrax and plague. His facility is run like a business. The benefit to undergraduates? They who work in the lab most write letters, create resumes, and interview to get a job at the lab. These students go on to great graduate research universities, having had such professional research experience.
            Forestry Professor Bruce Fox told us about how, after a forest fire on the Peaks, aspen trees tried to regenerate but elk snacked on the baby aspen trees as though at a deli. His students tried protecting the baby trees by strewing the area with fallen logs to stave off elk. It didn’t work but those students keep trying to find ways to help forests regenerate in their now-graduate programs. Rachel Koch teaches international students English quickly to prepare them for the two years of study they will spend at NAU. Professor of Educational Leadership, Ishmael Munene noted that we teach these students the subtle art of organizing committees and preparing presentations. Theater Professor Kate Ellis teaches costume design. She takes students to the Utah Shakespeare festival for hands-on set and design work. Statistics Professor Roy St. Laurent said that on Friday Afternoon Math Undergraduate Seminar (FAMUS) from 3 to 4, there’s not an open seat in the classroom.
            Sociology and Social Work professor Natalie Cawood, when asked by a Regent if when we were in college, did we had any undergraduate research opportunities, said that one of the things NAU does best is marry what private liberal arts schools provide—small class sizes, close-relationships with faculty, with what a large university provides—big research.
            President Cheng underscored that faculty at the breakfast were just a few of the hundreds of professors at NAU invested in undergraduate research. She invited each of the Regents to next April’s symposium where the entire Skydome is filled with poster presentations showcasing undergraduate research. I hope you can come too.

Letter #92--Northern Arizona Book Festival

Dear Governor Ducey,

            It is festival season in Flagstaff. Two Saturdays ago, at the same time as the Hopi Festival, the Festival of Science began in Wheeler Park. I met a falcon owned by the woman who manages Jay’s Bird Barn and talked to an avalanche expert. Max and Zoe won sunflower seeds by spinning a wheel, made bracelets with beads that indicated when to reapply sunscreen, and made parachutes to catch good air. Last Saturday was Oktoberfest and weekend two of the Festival of Science. We did as much science as possible with Max and Zoe at the new Science and Health building with its Hogwarts’ staircases that look down upon the Liberal Arts building. You can see my office which I chose for the light that came through my windows before Science and Health construction began. Still, to be shadowed by Hogwarts is not the end of the world.
            At the Science Fest we saw a scorpion that bio luminesced under a black light. We learned that people with cats have less staphylococcus bacteria on their skin. Max and Zoe got Smarties for answering questions about heart ventricles. We saw a stuffed peregrine falcon and a long eared owl and took some wildflower seeds home for our garden.
            When we first moved to Flagstaff, we went to an Oktoberfest out at the Nordic Center. There were pumpkins and a straw bale maze but no beer, which confused us, so we went home. This year, we didn’t make it to Oktoberfest because Stacy Murison, Lawrence Lenhart, colleagues of mine at NAU, and Kate Harkins, Blake Carrera, students in the MFA program, typed poems On Demand at Full Circle Thrift Store while Aly Jay played her beautiful guitar and sang her beautiful voice.
            Here’s two poems by us, The Poetry On Demand Team:
cloud/ a pull of snow/ o thin you can only dream about touching it/ you can fly through them.
And, Finding a fan: It was a breezeless day. What can you do in Phoenix in/July? Wait? No No No. /Go Get the wind.

            Instead of drinking beer, we typed in the first event of the Northern Arizona Book Festival, which officially begins next week. Jesse Sensibar and James Jay have put together an amazing schedule of events.  The whole schedule can be found at here are a few highlights:
            Monday, October 10th, 7–8 p.m. Narrow Chimney Reading with Michaela Carter, Ann Cummins, Susan Lang, Mary Sojourner at Uptown Pubhouse followed by Northern Arizona Playwriting Showcase at the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse from 8–9:30 p.m.  
            On Wednesday, Oct. 12, 5:30-7 p.m. Flag Live’s Letter from Home columnists read from their latest works at Uptown. Then, at 7:30 p.m. Gary Every and Lawrence Lenhart read at Barefoot Cowgirl.
            On Thursday, from 7-9  p.m. I, with William Trowbridge, Erin Stalcup, Diana Gabaldon read at the Coconino Center for the Arts.
            On Friday, Oct. 14 from 7–10 p.m. Jim Harrison Tribute with Pamela Uschuk, William Pitt Root, Doug Peacock at the Orpheum Theater            
            On Saturday, Oct. 15, from 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. Getting Published Workshop at Barefoot Cowgirl. At the downtown library, the Book Fest offers a slate of young readers’ events from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. At 1:30–3 p.m. Simmerman Book Release Reading with William Trowbridge, Ann Cummins, James Jay, Miles Waggener, and Sean Carswell at Uptown.
            Saturday night, at 7:00, it’s “Return of the Writers” with NAU English Department alumni Sean Carswell, T. Greenwood and Miles Waggener return to read from their latest books at Uptown.
            On Sun, Oct. 16 from 1:00 to 2:00, the Waxwing reading with Matt Bell and Dexter L. Booth at Firecreek Coffee Co will be followed by 2–3 p.m. Thin Air reading then from 3–4 p.m, is Indigenous Authors Reading with Jennifer Foerster, Tom Holm, Simon Ortiz, and Orlando White.
            The final event that Sunday is the book festival board reading with James Jay, Stacy Murison, Jesse Sensibar, John Quinonez, Andrew Wisniewski, and Ian Kersey where I promise to read all 100 of my Letters to Ducey (Not really. Really I will read poems On Demand. No need to torture my kind friends although if you come, Governor Ducey, I will read a letter to you).
            This is just a sampling of the events but you can see this is going to be a festival that will soar as high as the peregrine falcon, catch as much wind as a Max-built parachute, will make your heart ventricles pump enough blood to warrant a bucketful of Smarties. Come up from Phoenix, come get the wind.

Letter #92--Volunteer!

Dear Governor Ducey,

            I just finished mopping the floor. My sister is coming to town and I don’t want her to think I’m a total slob. I don’t have to mop the floor. She really wouldn’t mind but Bear the Dog likes to find the only mud-spot in the forest and to lay down full body. Then he likes to jump up on me and my running clothes. My running clothes are in the laundry. My leg is flaking its patch of dirt onto the floor—which I’ll have to vacuum again and then mop again. Sometimes, efficiency is not my middle name.
            I don’t have to mop the floor or walk the dogs (I do have to walk the dogs or the dogs would maul me with their neediness and pent up desire for muddiness). I could have been finishing the grant application. Or making a volunteer spreadsheet. Or finishing the copyedits on Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Or emailing instructors to send me their resumes.
            In between swipes of mop, I did some of these things.
            Again, probably not the most efficient mode but things pop up in my mind like dirt pops up on my leg—seemingly out of nowhere but actually quite predictable. My job is a hodgepodge of duties and, like most professor jobs, one that seems on the surface voluntary but is by hodge and podge, actually required.
            I want to email my student because she’s embarking on a big project—trying to put together a thesis on a single topic. How do you write about a single topic without becoming redundant? Well, I think back to the EGG book I wrote. How did I write Egg? I looked for various clichés and I titled each short essay that cliché. How many eggs does it take to break an omelet? Can you put humpty dumpty back together again? Is the egg truly incredible? Do I really have to walk on eggshells?
            I do have to email the student because my job is to teach. And I do have to write a book about eggs because how else will I know how to answer her question if I haven’t grappled with how to write about something before?
            I look at my list of things to do: make a volunteer sign-up list for the Northern Arizona Book Festival. This is truly volunteer work—not even in my job description and yet I volunteered to be a part and I want the book festival to go off successfully and how can I volunteer to make a volunteer list if I don’t volunteer myself?
            This morning, before I left to go get my sister from Phoenix, I popped over to Puente de Hozho, where my son Max goes to school, to try to inspire the kids to join the Read-a-Thon. Each kid has a bingo-like paper and each square has a particular idea to make the reading extraordinary, like read under a tree, read over the phone. The kids ask their parents and relatives to sponsor each square and the money goes to Puente to buy things Puente can’t normally afford like new sound systems, computers, playground equipment.  One of the squares was “Read in a funny place.” I asked the kids where they could read. The answers: on the roof, on the toilet, in the car, on the car, in a tree, while climbing, in a box, in a closet, on stilts. I told them to try to keep both feet on the ground as they read as a precautionary measure. I outlined the prizes, a Kindle, a $25 gift card, but I told them the true gift was a week devoted to reading. Truly self-serving! I, as a writer, want kids to grow up loving to read.
            I can write soon but first, I have students with essays for me to comment upon and books to read and review for presses. I have book fests to support and colleagues and students to write letters of recommendation for and previous professors to ask letters of recommendation of [future Letter to the Governor: Abolish letters of recommendation].
            An actual part of my job is to write—like that is spelled out and detailed. I’m supposed to teach 60% of my time. Write for 30%. Serve for 10%. And the writing is important because that is how I know what and how to teach.

           Now, I guess I have to go let the dogs back in, dirty though they may be. Somewhere between vacuuming and mopping, I’ll find a minute to write again.

Letter #91--Colleagues

Dear Governor Ducey,

            It is the first week back at university! The campus is bustling. The students are rapt. There are many changes afoot. New buildings and ped-ways. New systems to make classroom assignments more efficient. New parking rules. New grant-procurement incentives. It’s like a whole new university. And, in a way, it is. Since I started teaching here only 8 years ago, the number of students has doubled. You can tell when you’re in downtown Flagstaff. You can tell at the restaurants that have waiting lists and in the traffic and in the hallways. We are squeezing in and making room and I would say, it’s kind of exhilarating. It’s a great thing that more people want to come here and a sign that the university is getting recognition it deserves. My colleagues do awesome things: win Guggenheim’s, National Endowment of the Arts grants, National Science Foundation Grants.

            They also write books. Two of my colleagues, Lawrence Lenhart and Erin Stalcup, had books released this summer. Lawrence’s book, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, is a fantastic collection of essays about animals and mythologies, babies and sinking countries. The blurb I wrote for the back of the book goes like this:
There are books with turtles in them. And books with dogs. And books about bullies. And books about hoarding birds. There are books about Bangladesh and books about the end of the world but I do not think there is another book that pulls back the veil to reveal how woven together dogs, bullies, birds, babies and Bangladesh are. Lenhart does something in The Well-Stocked and Gilded Age that only someone with a special kind of genius can do: train his focus as sharply inward as he does outward. Intense awareness combined with his intense concern make for a big heart and a big brain and a big, as in important, book. 

            Erin Stalcup’s And Yet It Moves, is an amazing collection of short stories. This book is wild in the way it incorporates science, sex, and sauciness into a wide array of characters. What I love most about the book is the variety of narrators. Erin is just one person when I work and hang out with her but inside that one person’s head, she’s crafting believable and far-ranging people. 
            Justin Bigos worked on his novel all summer. He had good reason to. His novella was chosen by TC Boyle for the Seattle Review’s novella contests. If that wasn’t a big enough win, right before his short story published by McSweeney’s was chosen for The Best American Short Stories. And right before that, his chapbook, 20,000 Pigeons came out. He’s on a winning streak that doesn’t seem to stop.
            Did I mention that Erin and Justin’s lit mag Waxwing published a poem by Maggie Smith that went so viral articles in The Guardian were written about it?
            Ann Cummins, author of the collection Red Ant Hill and Yellow Cake, both big books from big presses, finished her nonfiction book this summer. I’ve a good portion of this. You may have heard her read from this manuscript around town. I don’t want to jinx it by saying out loud how big I think this book is going to be. So I’ll just say. It’s already amazing.
            Jane Armstrong, who’s on sabbatical, just won a Viola Award for her project Aphasia: Neurological Aphasia in Text and Image, which is still on display in Riles Building on campus. Even though she’s not on campus, she’s still working on building a writing community. She’s directing and acting in plays that the Northern Arizona Playwriting Showcased. NAPS, founded in part by our colleague Ann Cummins, showcases seven winning ten-minute plays every year—this year, September 9-11. In between playwriting and lyric essay writing, is researching a big book about her ancestry: Please see Charlemagne.
            I went back to teach this week and stood in front of the incoming Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing students and was able to tell them how happy we are to have them here and that the creative writing faculty, who write all summer long and on the weekends and sometimes between classes, are here to share with the students what we’ve been working on and how we got to where we are with our working.

            A lot has changed at NAU, including ever-diminishing resources. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the way the professors do what they do not only because they love it but because they love to share it and show their students how it’s done. I’m lucky to have such awesome colleagues that do it and show it and share it so well.