Thursday, August 20, 2015

Letter #59--Faculty Annual Activity Report

Dear Governor Ducey,

I’m not sure you’re familiar with the FAAR. It’s short for Faculty Annual Activity Report. Each year, college faculty complete a report on what they’ve done for the last two semesters. These used to be reports compiled into very large binders but most universities, I think, have gravitated to an online system. NAU has been using it for a few years now. I like it because I am not so good at copying paper or at three-hole punching, which is one of the demands of the old binder system.

In the new system, you upload the classes you’ve taught, the evaluations. You include your committee work and institutional work and any grants and publications. This itemized list also provides a chance to reflect on how you’ve succeeded and what you might do differently for the coming year.

Last semester, as you know, I was on sabbatical but in Fall 2014, I was not. I taught two classes and directed the MFA program. It was a very busy year. We had four guest writers last fall. David Carlin and Robin Hemley, with whom I’m chairing NonfictioNOW came to read and to help plan the conference. Their reading was a great success—students were familiar with Robin’s work—we read his literary guide on immersion writing in my nonfiction class— but not David Carlin, who teaches and writes in Melbourne. His stories were sad and funny and his new book, The Abyssinian Contortionist, is about a woman acrobat emigrating from Ethiopia. I felt lucky to introduce students to a well-known American writer as well as an exciting global one. Later that semester, I hosted Melanie Bishop whose YA novel had just been published. Students are very interested in writing young adult novels, and even young adult nonfiction, so her visit was incredibly welcome. Meg Files read and invited students up on the stage to read with her, making the stage less ominous-seeming and their work more professional-sounding.

My classes went well. I just looked at the number of words I wrote in response to grad student work. 45 single-spaced pages, one for each essay students turned in. I had 15 students in my grad class, which is 3 more than is recommended by the Associated Writing Program best-practices guidelines, but isn’t the 18 it sometimes can be, so I am grateful. In student evals, they were grateful to write so much but I think 3 essays per student may be too much both for students and for the classroom—we had to set a timer to make sure everyone got exactly 20 minutes per essay. As I begin to work on this coming semester’s syllabus, I may ask for only 2 essays, plus a more critical paper about structure and voice. I should work on that instead of this!

In my undergrad class evals, I got good comments—my favorite being “This was the best class I’ve taken,” which is always my favorite comment. I had one detractor who said we read too many other stories and that I didn’t explain difficult concepts well. I tried to explain difficult concepts well through the use of already-published essays but it is possible I need to slow down and define terms more often. I’ll work on that.

The Lit Mag, Thin Air, for which I am the faculty advisor, did a ton of great work last year. They made a calendar, hosted a fundraiser at Karma, included local writers in the newest issue and made big waves at AWP—big names published. We increased donations, subscriptions, and general funding by a factor of two. Sadly, we were not one of the two projects chosen to apply by our university to apply for arts council funding again because we asked for too little money and spreading the word about NAU and Thin Air at the biggest writers conference in the world was deemed to have “insufficient impact.” Still, I will look for other grants for the mag this year.

This is getting boring so I’ll try to be quick in my final analysis. For my sabbatical, I wrote and finished the “sustainability” manuscript. I applied for two grants to support finishing them. Didn’t get them. I published a bunch of essays online: The Rumpus, Hobart, Full Grown People, Sundog Lit (thanks, Jill), and Better: Culture and Lit. I had a big essay come out in Witness, which is one of my dream mags and another of my dream mags, Black Warrior Review, published “Distracted Parents of the Micromanagement Era” as a chapbook. I made a new category on my CV. I also published in Orion, which is my dreamiest dream. It was just a short essay but it’s about bees so it counts.

For most of my sabbatical, I worked on the conference. I’ll write more about that soon. Let’s just say, there is about an email per hour about the conference. I spent this morning looking at Tote Bags. I am very close to people who work in NAU’s IT and Ebiz department. I have to pick some hors d’ouevres soon. That will be fun.

Even though I was on sabbatical, I hosted a few guest writers—Cynthia Hogue and Karen Brennan—who were excellent guests and spent time talking to students after their reading about exploding traditional forms and wrote a poem for the president’s installation. I wrote the final reports for grants which is a lot like writing a FAAR report for the year in support. I also wrote some new grants since even though I was on sabbatical, the grant funding places were not—and now we can have guest writers again.  Thanks ACA and FAC! I joined the Northern Arizona Book Festival board and I taught at Pima’s Writer’s Workshop and visited Murray State in Kentucky.

I revised a lot of books. I also started a new one. There’s really no place to put this in-progress work on the FAAR Faculty 180 page but since I imagine you’re counting words per minute as a sign of my worthiness to take some start dollars for my salary, I thought I should post word counts here:
Semi-permeable (novel revision)—added 13,000 words (probably deleted as many).
New essay, forthcoming in Barrelhouse: revolution—3600 words
Published in Full Grown People: You Never Know Just How You Look in Other Peopl’s Eyes (sorry if you have the song in your head now)—2000 words
Action for Sustainability—2000 words
Whales for Sustainability—4400 words
Wolves for Sustainability—2500 words
New project--Eggs: 19,000 total
More new project--Better Lettuce--3000
More new project--Nice Eggs—8000
More new project--Why we break Things—3700
More new project--Better—500
Buzzfeed quizzes (I didn’t just take them! I wrote about them)—1500
Mohawk  new project—500
Smile new projet—1000
Glomski Log (film logging for Micro-film. Way hard)-4000 words
Letters to the governor—38500 words

Old novel: Quicksand 83,200
New YA Novel: Hard Rain: 64,074 (but not all the way done with this one).

My goals were to revise Microcosm, Salmon (which has a new title: Processed Meats!), Quicksand, Semi-permeable, and Hard Rain and to finish the Microfilm movie. The movie is hard. I had some serious near successes with each of these books—especially, Quicksand (almost) and Microcosm (almost). Horseshoes is not quite what we’re playing but there’s some feeling of forward motion.

I don’t know if other state employees upload evidence of the work they’ve done for the year or if they must provide links to work they’ve published or to evaluations from their “clients” or “customers.” I don’t know if writing this report instead of drafting an essay or working on my syllabus or writing a grant is something other employees do, but I’m glad you find it meaningful and that you now have a greater sense of where tax dollars go.  I’m sure this report, if not the work I do, is money well spent.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Letter #58--True Detective and Revision

Dear Governor Ducey,
In Letter #56, I wrote about changing your mind.  Oh, would that all writing be so available for recall as a letter I wrote four days ago. I was thinking last night that really, to write a novel, you have to write it all in one day or you forget what you were doing and, if you take a break of three days or three weeks or three months, you have only the vestiges of your idea—like smoke trailing after a fire. You try to pin it back down but, especially in novels where the fire itself isn’t a straightforward plot and the characters are but wet wood, promising love but requiring special stoking, the smoke drifts this way and that you and chase it but you cannot quite grasp the original trajectory and you look mostly like an idiot, running across the forest, trying to make the smoke stay in one god-damn place for five seconds. Then you get mad at your idea and yourself for being so stupid as to create such an ephemeral and disobedient substance as fire/smoke.

True Detectives season 2 was universally reviled but now that it is over and one can see it in retrospect, there was one cool moment in the middle of the season when Ray (Colin Ferrell) was first pretend-killed (shot with pellet gun) and he dreamt about his father. This dream-speaking-father predicts Ray’s actual death. The image of him running through the forest. The statement, you are not fast enough. The final fact: “They will shoot you to pieces.”

This is what you want in a story: a story tucked within a story, each sentence telling a miniature version of that story within the larger story. In True Detectives, the story within the story, the foreshadowing metaphor, was blatant in hindsight. Probably too obvious. One would like to be a little subtler. But the ingredients for success are there—sadly, the fact that it was impossible to like or care about any of the characters crushed that chance for success. When you’re revising, you see glimmers of what you thought you might have been up to—the story within the story—but if you walk away from the fire too long, and the end of the book doesn’t follow the original trajectory because of the ways of wafting smoke, those stories stick out like sore thumbs. Or the only good thumb in a generally bad hand, as True Detectives went. Still, you can see it, in retrospect, this nugget of a story tucked within the larger story which at least gives the show some sense of artfulness.

One of the hardest things about teaching the art of writing is the lack of time we have in a semester. It has taken me years to figure this out—that you have to be fast fast fast to lay down the fire and to catch the smoke. Then, you have to put it away and forget the book entirely so you can see if indeed the smoke and fire are smoke and fire and not, instead, peanut butter and jelly or, worse, things that don’t go together, pickles and coconut. In a semester, you might be able to write a whole book but you certainly can’t revise it. Not everyone in your class would have the time to read 18 books—18 being the number of students our workshops generally have. And, no matter how much response you get from your professor or your colleagues, you, writer, won’t have time to forget the book—which you have to do if you want to be sure the thing you’re tracing is actual smoke and not just the hot air of what you imagined you thought you had written but in fact, had not. It would be cool if we had a program where in the first semester, you wrote a book and then, 4 or 5 semesters, you returned to it. What difference a distance of 3 years would make.

The point of sabbatical is a bit of this. To take a break from teaching so you can re-see how to do it. And, while you’re breaking, you’re back to all those books you needed to revise. You re-see them too. They’re a mess maybe. My first novel, I just revised. It’s better now. Maybe still not good enough, but better. My second novel, I can see it is natively better than the first. Still needs a lot of help. My third novel. Well, maybe it’s a revision of the first. Maybe it was stronger right off the bat, now that I had practiced noveling 3 times.  Or, maybe, it needs another 5 years to smolder.

Not everyone gets a chance to take a full on break to revisit the fires they’ve made but I do think summer functions as a kind of break for most everyone to some degree. The heat or the rain linger and your vacation or the fact that everyone else is on vacation means that work slows down. The earth shifts toward the sun. The light looks different. The sunset, even if you wanted to avoid its unworldly light, is unavoidable. Your kids are home. TV is boring. You have to go outside. You step out without shoes. The ground is hot. You think, what kind of fire is this? You check for smoke. Depending on the wildfire season, it’s either real or its not. You try to pin it down. You wait for fall. You tell your students, write fast, revise often. You wonder, governor, can you see it differently now?

Friday, August 07, 2015

Letter #57--Trilingual Public Schools Ueber Alles.

Dear All-powerful Governor,

My kids started back to school yesterday. August 6th. Everyone is astounded the kids start so early here. I try to explain that they have two weeks off at Christmas and a week off for spring break and 6 snow days that are built in and are pointless because it doesn’t really snow anymore. Starting early and ending in early June/late May makes it look like Arizona is committed to education but I really think the superintendent is hell-bent on year-round school but this academic-calendar-based town won’t go for it. 185 days a year for school is pretty normal across the country, I think. I think it’s 180 in Utah. My kids like school. Well, Max just started Kindergarten so who know how long he’ll like school but they had fun the first day. It’s a Spanish Immersion school. Max told me he learned to read and write Spanish yesterday. I guess the next five years will just be review, then.

It’s a well-integrated school, because of the tri-lingual program. Most of the students take the Spanish/English track but some kids, mostly Navajo, take the DinĂ© track. The Navajo kids don’t usually know Navajo. Their grandparents speak it but their parents don’t. They’re learning it to preserve it. It’s cool and rare and now Zoe, even though she’s on the Spanish/English track, knows a few Navajo words and has a lot of Navajo friends.

I was listening to This American Life podcast today about poor performing schools. The argument for this story was that the only thing that ever works to bring up test-scores of kids in struggling schools is integration. The story recounts a Missouri school district’s loss of accreditation that allowed students to transfer to a well-performing school. The kids did who transferred did better. The test scores in the well-performing school didn’t drop. Nothing bad happened. The parents of the good school were outraged. They sounded as racist as if they had been recorded in 1950, citing violence, the need for metal detectors, and all coded racist language that suggested “those students” would ruin their schools and drive the good (white) people from town.

The students at the good school were more welcoming, which is promising. I keep thinking that everyone generation, people get better, more open-minded, less racist, more communally oriented.  I fear I’m wrong. Something happens when you have kids that makes you think “good education” means for good education for your kids and not necessarily for all kids. It’s a bit of a horrible, if natural, condition that one’s focus narrows and narrows to see only the beautiful potential in your own beautiful offspring. I would like to think I can subvert that natural narrow focusing but I’m not sure I’m so good at it. I ask myself, if the school over here is better for my kid, would I will send them there, superseding my belief that a diverse school makes a better school for everyone? I hope not but it is my job to look at for my kids. But it’s also my job to look out for other kids. It’s all our job, not just yours, to look out for all the kids.

I understand you’ll be visiting my kids’ school soon. I would like to meet you there so you can see that this one school works for all the kids and that all these kids each has a better chance of going to college, where, if you could help restore funding, I can teach them all together and no one will be turned away from college because of their inability to pay or because they were stuck in a poor school that shafted them an education because the people of the good schools wanted them kept out of their kids’ good schools, assuming “those students” wouldn’t be going to college anyway.

I started this post with the “all powerful” salutation because I wanted you to see what you could do to keep my kids happy and tiny and in the fifth grade and Kindergarten respectively (or even vice-versally) forever. But then I thought, if you could be all-powerful, then what I really wish is that each kid in this state has a good a shot as my kids at loving school and learning a lot. You have that kind of power. You should use it thusly.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Letter #56--The Bad News About Clif Bars

Dear Governor Ducey,

            It has been a short summer. I thought I’d give you and me a break from the incessant pleas to you to reconsider the devastating education budget cuts but now that time is over. I hope you had the opportunity to take a vacation. Perhaps on said vacation, you had the chance to reevaluate your position. It isn’t easy to change your mind, but it can happen,e especially when you’re on break and have time to reflect. Sometimes, when you go into a situation, you think you know what you should do, like when you first became governor and thought you had to Scott Walker the state. But sometimes, you do that “thought-was-the-right-thing” and then you realize you were wrong. This happened to me coming back from a vacation to Salt Lake. My family lives in Utah, where they too would like to Scott Walker the place, but where I still like to visit to see my family. We head north on 89 through Page, Kanab, Orderville, Panguitch until we hit I-15 and can legally drive 82 miles per hour.

We stop at Walker’s Wendy’s* in Kanab.  We had quite a convivial time in Salt Lake at my sister’s wedding. So much conviviality that I thought instead of eating at Wendy’s, which is always my dream and no one else’s, since Zoe doesn’t like fast food (although I could have persuaded Max now that he likes hamburgers with everything on them), that we should eat something healthy. Even Erik, who also doesn’t like fast food, said, “We can eat at Wendy’s, for lunch” which is rare and persuasive. But I stuck to my healthy, Walker-guns.

            We enter the Walker’s Fuel Stop on the right instead of the Wendy’s on the left. But then I notice it’s no longer Walker’s Fuel Stop. It’s a Seven-Eleven. We don’t have Seven-Eleven’s in Flagstaff (maybe you can do something about that). I had promised Max and Zoe a Slurpee. They had never had one. They taste better than Icee’s (the flavor satuates the ice more fully) although probably not healthier—the same as Vitamin Water, I suspect, which I would have bought them if they’d asked because we’re at the Fuel Stop in Kanab and I am easily persuaded to the word “Vitamin” when on a “health kick” in Kanab, Utah and the only provisions available are at the Fuel Stop. But after the Slurpee, that was it! No more junk food. I made them buy some nuts. Some beef jerky. It took me a long time to find the granola bars. I know not much of this is really healthy but it’s “Fuel Stop Healthy.” Or so I thought. We checked out. $25.79. Erik said, “Wendy’s would have been cheaper.” I nodded. But worse for you. Much worse. Right?

            No, is the answer. Wendy’s would have been better for you. And cheaper. The saturated fat content on the granola bars (Clif. Builder. Chocolate Mint) was 30%. That’s worse than a hamburger. And, the saturated fat is palm oil! The palms are the trees for which they cut down rain forests!
The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years, and Sumatran tigers less than 3 years.”

Great work, Clif Bar industries. As we drove away, I looked longingly at the Wendy’s sign in the rearview mirror. The Clif Bar tasted chemical and chalky.

I know it will be hard for you to admit that funding universities at a sustainable level is healthier for the state than funding, say, prisons, which is good for the prison industry in the same way the granola bar is good for the palm oil industry. But you can see right on the packaging how spending more to keep people in jail than to educate them is a dumb idea—more expensive and not really as healthful as the hiker-on-the-package suggests. Sometimes, it just takes a little time, maybe when you’re on vacation, to see where real value lies.

*This story has a lot of Walkers in it. Scott Walker. I’m a Walker. And we stopped at what once was Walker’s Fuel Stop which also houses the Wendy’s in Kanab. Which is now a Sev.