Category Archives: Composition and Rhetoric

Faculty Research: Dr. Michelle Veenstra Discusses “Mindful Learning”

Dr. Michelle Veenstra, Assistant Director of the Writing Program, recently gave a talk to FMU faculty about the interplay among mindfulness, learning, and teaching. 

She presented her talk, “Mindful Learning in the Age of Distraction: How Students and Professors Can Become More Present in the Twenty-First Century,” as part of FMU’s Humanities and Social Sciences Symposium. The Symposium is held monthly and features works-in-progress by FMU faculty members.

Dr. Veenstra advises professors and students begin class together with three minutes of meditation in which one:

  • Focuses on the breath or breathing in and out
  • Lets thoughts come and go so as to remain in the present moment

Mindfulness, as Dr. Veenstra suggests in her talk, may improve attention, critical thinking skills, and even capacity for innovation and creativity.

Watch Dr. Veenstra’s talk in its entirety below to learn more about the research behind mindful learning. Dr. Veenstra also discusses how she used meditation in her English 200 classroom during the Spring 2013 semester.

“Doing” English in the 21st Century

 

In this post, Dr. Clemons considers the practice of literary studies today, a question she is exploring with her students this semester in Foundations of Literary Study.

I opened my Foundations of Literary Study (English 300) class a few weeks ago with a difficult question: “What does it mean to study English in the academy today? What do we study when we study ‘English’?” In part, I did so to frame our discussions for the semester: the class introduces students to the “research methodologies…[and] literary theories…[needed] to read and respond to poetry, fiction, and drama.” At the same time, I also wanted to prepare students for the inevitable, uncomfortable moment, typically at a family holiday meal, when someone asks, “So, what are you going to do with that English degree?” Barring a quote from Avenue Q to fill the awkward gap, I wanted my students to have an answer.

But I wanted one, too. Because thirteen years after hesitantly declaring myself an English major, I’m still not always sure what it is I’m doing.

Worldle of text in this blog post. Make your own at wordle.net.

Take the list our class developed of “Things English Majors Study.” At first, the answers were pretty typical. Shakespeare made an appearance. Twice. But then the list got much more interesting (if I may say so). Remembering the MLA’s mission statement we read, students added “folklore” to the list. Then “Business writing.” Then “Poetry writing.” Followed by “How to teach writing.” Then a tentative “Rhetoric?” During a lull, I asked them to think about courses they’d taken or seen listed at FMU. This netted quick responses of “African American Literature” and “Gender Studies” and “Literary Theory” and “Film and Mass Media.” One person offered enthusiastically, “History of the English Language and Grammar.” Someone else groaned. By the end of that discussion, the list covered most of the board, and I asked the question again: What does it mean to be an English major?

My students are still ruminating over that question. (I’m giving them until April.) Here and now, though, I want to consider the temporal part of this question: What does it mean to be in English today? That, to me, is the difficult part of the equation. Perhaps six or seven decades ago, one could comfortably state that English majors were people who read and were “cultured” in the classics of literature. They spent their time considering the major questions of literary study–What does this piece mean? How does it convey this message, and does it do so successfully? What makes this piece a Great Work? Frankly, these were not the reasons why I grudgingly signed on to get a BA in English. I was lucky enough that, in a cornfield in Ohio, I was allowed to ask the kinds of questions I wanted to ask, because these other approaches, this “Cultural Turn,” was what made it all worth it to me.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user untitled projects

Instead of looking at the canon, I finished my honors thesis on Science Fiction (the good and the bad, I might add). Similarly, although I took Shakespeare, I also took Mass Media (because how do we get Shakespeare these days, except through Kenneth Branagh?). While I enjoyed the seminar-style Modernist Poetry, I loved my Film and Violence course. And although it’s impossible to hate a course on PostModern Southern Religious Writers, my course in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory changed how I read Flannery O’Connor and Graham Green. Today’s “English” field is no longer stuck within the text but is cutting across multiple, related fields. Our departmental website’s homepage is a testament to this fact.

Further, today’s literature is not passively, privately consumed years after it was produced. Today’s literature–even literature written “before the internet”–is a visibly living part of the fabric of our culture. While this might have always been true, literature and its effects are trackable not just by which major critic is reviewing what, but by the girl on the street tweeting about her newfound love for Whitman (hey, it could happen. Somewhere.). Today’s top authors don’t just do the lecture circuits and then retire to their mountain retreats in New England (admit it: that’s what you picture): They go out, they talk to people. They get new ideas from their readers. They use what little fame they have for activism or they just geek out, sometimes with their fans.

Do you tweet? CC-licensed photo by flickr user cobalt123.

Nor does reading only encompass sitting alone in a coffee shop. Facebook links up communities of readers. You can track what’s on your BFF’s virtual shelf with multiple apps. Amazon’s algorithm can pick out your new favorite book. You can listen to your favorite book on your iWhatever. IMDB can help you find when the movie or TV rights got sold, and you can debate on Tumblr who should be cast, complete with sample pics. If you’re really brave, you can stumble your way into the world of fandom and write your own version. Don’t like how Darcy treats Elizabeth? Fix it by adding an explanatory scene. Or have the Lizzie hook up with Iron Man when the Avengers crash the party thanks to a time traveling trope–the story is yours. (And then email it to me, so I can examine what social function this story fulfills for the reader and writer.)

In recent months, liberal arts schools have been working to show the public why we exist or what can be gained by doing what we do. Most of them, rightly so, point to studies that show what employers want is not easily quantifiable skills, but training in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. This, we argue, is what the liberal arts, specifically English, gets us. Being an English major in the 21st century means learning how to read the world and, more importantly, respond to it. 

This, of course, is a very long answer to give when you get the “English major, huh. So what are you going to do with that?” question. Feel free to edit it down and make it your own. Start a tumblr. Create a Facebook page. Write a post for our departmental blog.

And if you’re one of my students in ENG 300 this semester: I’m still looking for responses to another question: “What does it mean to study English in the academy today? What do we study when we study ‘English’?” I hope that by the end of the course, you’ve found not only your answer, but your own way to express it as well.

 

English All Over Again

Department of English professor Dr. Will Duffy explains why he majored in English as an undergraduate — and why he’d do it “all over again” if he was starting college today.

Not too long ago a friend from college asked me what I would major in if I could turn back the clock and do college all over again. My friend had no ulterior motive with the question; it was just one of those random “what if” conversations we sometimes share with our friends.

I thought about the question for a moment.

One answer I considered was communications, but I quickly dismissed this response because in communications programs there is very little by way of philosophy. When you study literature and writing in an English program, you ask questions about not only what makes for effective communication, but you also study the reasons why people think and act—and speak and write!—in the ways that they do.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Leo Reynolds

I don’t mean to sound critical of my colleagues in  communications departments, but I’ve always framed the difference between English and communications using that aphorism about teaching another person to fish. You can give someone a fish, and feed him for a day, or teach someone to fish….well, you know how it ends. English programs dive into the why of in addition to the how.

Another answer I considered was economics. Economics is interesting because there is a strong philosophical dimension to it (you have to know how to think), as well it requires a cursory knowledge of psychology and rhetoric (you have to understand how other people think, and what persuades them). The problem with economics, however, is that you also have to know math. Without going into details, I’ll just say that math and I broke up years ago. It was a messy break-up, too. We hardly even talk anymore.

A third possibility I considered was religious studies. I did then and continue still to enjoy the study of religion, in particular the philosophy of religion. That is, I have no real interest in theological debates but I do love talking about the ways that religious belief influence and inform how we see the world in general. To be honest, I have nothing negative to say about religious studies; in fact, if you’re an FMU student, I encourage you take as many classes with Professor Blackwell as possible. But would I want to have majored in religious studies if I could do college all over again? No, but not because I don’t think it is a valuable area of study, but rather because I fell in love with the study of rhetoric as an English major, which allows me to study religion as a rhetorician.

After running through these answers in my head, I finally answered my friend’s question by stating that I’d major in English all over again. I justified my answer by noting how everything that interests me—philosophy, reading, writing, rhetoric, religion—I can “do” as an English major. Sure, English might not be a particularly sexy degree, but it’s certainly comprehensive and it’s even practical. This latter characteristic of an English degree might not be obvious on the surface, but studying English requires disciplined work in reading, thinking, analyzing, and writing–skills employers value.

Moreover, and more importantly, majoring in English gives you the freedom to define and in turn pursue your own particular interests. If you like creative work, you can learn to write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. If you like analytical work, you can pick schools of literature in which to develop specialized knowledge and experience. If you like art and design, you can study professional writing and rhetoric and put your education to work in the fields of public relations and communications. If you’re like me, you enjoy reading and writing about ways that people produce arguments about the world around them and how they share these ideas in the public sphere. This interest is what led me to pursue graduate study in Rhetoric and Composition (a sub-discipline of English!), which in turn allowed me to become a university professor.

The point of this story, I guess, is that I’m not at all surprised why I answered my friend’s question the way I did. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I have reaped lots of value from my experience as an English major. I’ve never second-guessed this decision.

I share these thoughts here because I’ve recently had several conversations with FMU students who’ve decided to switch their major to English (usually from something else!), or who’ve decided to minor in English. One of these students in particular, let’s call her Emily, came by my office early in the semester to tell me this news. “Great,” I said. “Good for you.” But clearly my response wasn’t adequate. This student wanted something more from our exchange because she kept lingering in the doorway. “I just feel like I have to tell people,” she said. “I don’t know why.” While we didn’t have a long discussion, this student explained this was the first decision she’s made about her college career that she feels has been totally her decision. Declaring a major in English was obviously a kind of affirmation for this student—a way for her to tell her friends and family that she has found something she loves to do and that she’s going to do it.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user nvk_

I love witnessing these moments. I’ve had ones like that myself. It’s a fun thing to recognize when another person discovers a vocation that excites them. Too often I see college students simply go through the motions; checking off courses one by one; completing their schoolwork with little passion, little care. English is an area of study that grabs hold of you and gets you excited about the how things like narrative, argument, and the rendering of experience keeps our world going. Well, it will if you let it. Jump in, I always tell my students.

If any of you have stories about your “conversion” to English as a major or minor, please share them here!