Monday, June 29, 2015

One Rice Season in Taiwan as an Exchange Professor

By Dan Lehman, Professor of English

When I arrived in Taiwan, accompanied by my wife Barbara, to teach American Literature and composition at Providence University in Taichung, the rice paddies were bare, dark, and flooded. We have seen one crop grow a brilliant green, age to yellow, be shorn, and the stubble burned for a new crop in the flooded fields. Overall, it has been a wonderful experience that we will always treasure, and it's now time to go home. 

Dan and Barbara Lehman in a Taipei, Taiwan, city park not long after arriving in February.
Reflections on teaching: Taiwanese students are almost unfailingly sweet and polite. Any grouchy old-timers who bemoan the lack of respect for professors among modern-day students should definitely go to Taiwan. In fact, I found my students too polite and respectful for the most part and worked hard for a semester to encourage them to think and write critically and to speak up in class. Initially, they simply craved my telling them exactly what they needed to know so they could be sure to give me exactly what I wanted. As one said: “In the China way, we are not requested to explore or to create—just to receive.” By the end, at least some had discovered that their own ideas and research were worth sharing and could write a five-page essay instead of four-paragraph essays by rote on trivial topics.

About 10 percent of the students in my classes were on exchange from the People’s Republic of China, which added depth and diversity. On the whole, the PRC students tended to have better English and a bit more confidence in class, perhaps because they were the sorts of students willing to risk a foreign exchange. One student, who shall remain nameless (hey, the Chinese hackers get into more systems than you think), turned in an honest and somewhat devastating critique of her government’s policies on childbirth (generally one child per family, which in extreme cases can prompt families to discard infant females) that, though I did not prompt the topic, exemplified the sort of critical inquiry that I was encouraging. I couldn’t help noticing that she wrote it by hand rather than using a computer to generate it. Another female student from the PRC told me that her parents gave her the English name “Talent” in direct defiance of the Chinese proverb: “A woman without talent is therefore virtuous.” She proved to be my best student in either class. Her parents not only celebrated their female child, but provided a way for her to study in a democracy—certainly a memory for me to cherish.

Dan and his composition students at Providence University. Also pictured are Barbara Lehman and Dan's daughter and granddaughter.
My American Literature class had 64 students and thus much less opportunity for this sort of exchange, in that it had to be mostly lecture during the three-hour weekly class on topics from Huck Finn to American postmodernism. The saving grace was that the students remained fascinated by American literature and culture, particularly by frank discussions of the blemishes in our past: slavery, the racism of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the like. I scrupulously avoided Chinese or Taiwanese politics in both classes, but was willing to answer questions about the U.S., so long as they knew that mine was only one opinion. Their interest in all things American seemed unquenchable. In fact a professor at a major university in Taipei reported last week in a Taipei Times op-ed piece that he polled his students on whether they would rather re-unify with China, form an independent Taiwan, or become the 51st American state. By a landslide they chose the latter option, he said. Intriguing! Barbara and I will always remember the island’s young students who find themselves in a land of uncertain future: in many ways cut off from the world by power and circumstance, but so hopeful for what their island might be and become.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

River Teeth Conference 2015

by Hilary Donatini

From May 29-31 nearly eighty writers gathered on Ashland's campus to discuss the craft of creative nonfiction. The fourth annual River Teeth Nonfiction Conference featured readings and craft talks by some of the most exciting writers working in this burgeoning genre. I attended "A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed," which is available to view on the "Conference Archives" page along with numerous other gems from previous River Teeth conferences. 

A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed
I was struck by how practical the session was for any kind of writer, including someone like me who writes in scholarly rather than creative forms—although I try to be creatively analytical, if such a thing is possible! Our very own Joe Mackall focused much of the conversation on some passages from her best-selling book Wild, but Strayed's discussion of her revision process and evolution of the manuscript spoke to me as an academic writer. Strayed was so eloquent and wise that I found myself jotting down whole sentences to contemplate and absorb. 

The session left me with a sense of pride that our campus drew this caliber of speaker (Strayed has read her work at Ashland before, so seeing her again was a treat) and audience as well as possibility—for myself as a writer and for everyone struggling to make sense of the world through words on a page. 

Join us for the River Teeth Conference 2016!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Alumni Spotlight: Amanda Reis

By Amanda Reis, class of 2010, English major

I listen for my AU English professors every time I write. I can still see Dr. Russell Weaver in his tweed sports jacket and grey beard, sitting at the head of a long rectangular table, telling me to avoid comma splices and never start a sentence with ‘it’. “How can you make this sentence better?” he’d asked. On the contrary, I can hear Dr. Joe Mackall assuring me with his light hearted, personable demeanor that it’s okay to “just write” sometimes and worry about the spelling and grammar later. Skip the introduction and write the piece, he’d tell me, for how can you introduce something that hasn’t yet been written?

I carry the books I’ve read and the papers I’ve written into the conversations and interactions I have both personally and professionally: Jane Eyre, Mrs. Dalloway, Trainspotting, The Canterbury Tales. Papers with specifications to start with only one word and expand on that word over eight pages. Round table discussions and living room sessions trying to understand the meaning of human nature in literature. It is without question that these exercises cultivated a certain level of inquisitiveness, and as a result, a strong desire to understand the world around me. I frequently hear my family or my friends tell me that I “make them tired” with my ceaseless need to fully comprehend a subject or a motivation for why things are done, but nurturing one’s curiosity and intellect is necessary to advance personally or in any profession.

The experiences I had at Ashland University as an English undergraduate student laid the foundation for success in my both professional and personal life. I served as a student reader on the editorial board for RiverTeeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and also interned as a catalog project coordinator at BookMasters Distribution Center in Ashland, OH. It was through these experiences, working with self-motivated authors outside of mainstream publishing, that I began to grasp and appreciate writers from across the globe who were talented and inspiring with a story to tell. I knew I wanted to advocate for them in my professional life.

At the University of the Arts, Philadelphia

After graduation I moved back to my hometown in Pittsburgh, PA and did just that. I worked as a Project Coordinator on the production team of a small vanity press in the Cultural District of downtown Pittsburgh. For a year and a half, I worked with authors from all over the world, discussing their goals for publication and their vision for their finished pieces. I developed relationships and was able to empathize with the basic humanitarianism in what they were doing— trying to make a difference, trying to heal a broken heart, trying to help someone in need. Connecting with my authors (our customers) in this way not only made me a valuable employee, but allowed me to see the importance of interpersonal communication at the professional level. The understanding of human nature and ability to communicate effectively that I practiced every day at Ashland (and continue to practice now) is a skill that is invaluable to employers, whether working directly with customers or with colleagues in the office.

I have since left the publishing industry and currently work at the University of Pittsburgh as an admissions counselor for one of the six health science schools on campus. My daily work is inundated with communication, both written and verbal. I communicate with students and their families, faculty and staff, and on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Communicating effectively is vital, and it is validating every time I finish sending a correspondence or talk with a student to have acquired and nurtured a skill that is so respected and coveted in the professional world. The feelings of confidence and competence I have in my abilities to communicate well have allowed me to complete many successful projects at work, enabling me to further demonstrate my value to my work community. Additionally, I am currently enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh studying health and wellness; it is my goal to combine my love of nutrition and fitness with my communication skills and work to help people achieve their goals.

To reflect and write a piece like this is insightful, and I am thankful for the opportunity to do so. Above all else, my time at AU assured in me that my abilities to connect with and understand the world around me would be highly developed. In that respect, no matter where my professional path takes me, I know I can be successful. And for that I am grateful.

Monday, June 1, 2015

English Student Alaina Berry Wins Award for Best Honors Capstone Project

By Dr. Sharleen Mondal, Assistant Professor of English

On Friday, May 8, at Ashland University's Honors Cording Ceremony, English major Alaina Berry was awarded the Howard O. Rowe Scholarship for best Honors Capstone project among her peers. Her project, titled The Effects of Code-Switching: How Bless Me, Ultima Explores Chican@ Culture and Identity, is illustrative of the outstanding scholarship produced by English majors at Ashland University. Berry’s faculty mentors included Dr. Linda Joyce Brown (English), Dr. Sharleen Mondal (English), and Dr. Pravin Rodrigues (Communication Studies). 

Alaina at her defense with her faculty mentors, Dr. Mondal and Dr. Brown.
Berry’s project examines the use of code-switching—or the use of both English and Spanish—in Rudolfo Anaya’s acclaimed novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972). She argues that Anaya’s code-switching not only works to highlight the value of Chican@ culture through the novel’s use of both languages, but also critiques and disrupts the normative construction of American identity, which is monolingual and Anglo-centric. Berry shows that the novel argues for a broadening of American identity which acknowledges histories of Anglo territorial acquisition and linguistic suppression, and thus, which values Chican@ culture and Spanish language rather than marginalizing them.

When asked how she developed her Capstone project, Berry explained that 

My motivation to write about this topic primarily stemmed from my English and Spanish majors. I enjoyed doing close readings and analyzing the text directly, but I wanted to incorporate my understanding of Spanish language. This led me to the novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya which has both English and Spanish languages and was a novel that I had read in an academic setting on multiple occasions. My experience in Dr. Brown's class particularly inspired me to take a closer look at the work and see what it had to offer.

In her letter nominating Berry's project for the award, Dr. Mondal, praised the project for its methodological sophistication and cultural relevance. She also highlighted Berry's excellence in "connecting complex historical, political, linguistic, and theoretical information to her literary analysis," which allowed Berry to show "how relevant Anaya’s work was and continues to be given the material realities of Chican@ readers." Dr. Mondal also praised Berry's "deep sense of responsibility as a scholar” in that she diligently analyzes “the work of other writers to prove the uniqueness and impact of Anaya’s style of code-switching." Dr. Mondal also noted that during her defense, Berry not only laid out the core arguments in her thesis, but also addressed the current relevance of her work in the midst of highly contested laws in Arizona banning Mexican American studies courses, as well as the defunding and even elimination of Mexican American and Ethnic Studies programs at the university level across the United States. Berry’s work reminds us of the costs incurred when monolingual, Anglo-centric versions of American culture and identity are privileged while others are obscured—and of the richness that Chican@ culture has to offer. With regard to the relevance of her scholarship to current issues, Berry notes that “What was discussed in this project is only the tip of the iceberg; much more can be gleaned from Anaya's novel, and much more needs to be done in order to combat an Anglo-centric and monolingual American identity.”

When asked to reflect on the process of writing and research that produced her outstanding thesis, Berry remarked that

Working on the project was an incredible experience. I did a great deal of research and reading, and once I reached the point of writing, the process became easier because I understood what I was trying to express. Of course, there were points where I was frustrated or felt convinced that I couldn't continue, but the support from my mentors, family, and friends helped me through and led me to my success. I'm proud of the work I did, and I wouldn't have been if it weren't for the guidance that I had.

She further reflected on how her experience as an English major informed her award-winning scholarship, noting that

This project would have been nothing had it not been for the fantastic faculty in the English Department. Not only did they solidify my decision to pursue an English major, but they challenged me to take my work to a higher level. They were there to offer article and book recommendations, engaged in discussions about interesting literary, historic, and contemporary topics, worked at odd hours of the day and night to provide me with feedback, and gave support even when they were not physically present.

Becoming an English major was one of the best decisions of my undergraduate career. I have developed skills to write clearly and effectively, be a critical thinker and conscientious individual, and appreciate widespread perspectives that I had not considered in the past.

Berry graduated this May and will be greatly missed by her professors and peers. Her scholarly work and deep sense of the linkages between literary works and social justice reflects the best of what Ashland English faculty could hope to inspire in students.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Fun With Flash Fiction

By Mary Moeller, class of 2015, Creative Writing minor

Going into Dr. Jayne Waterman’s Short Story class, I expected it to consist solely of analytical exercises. While we did do quite a bit of reading and analyzing short stories from a wide variety of very talented authors, I was pleasantly surprised when Dr. Waterman informed the class that the final paper would be a creative piece rather than an analytical one. The assignment was that every student in the class had to write a piece of “Flash Fiction,” which is a very brief short story. Specifically, our assignment had to be about 500 words or less.

Writing such a short story seemed almost impossible when we first received the assignment, but Dr. Waterman had the class keep a creative journal throughout the semester in order to help us generate ideas for our pieces. She also had us read short stories she chose specifically to help inspire us as we wrote. She was very diligent about reading our journals and giving feedback to help steer us down the right path when writing our stories. With her guidance, the task became much less daunting and much more enjoyable.

During the final class period, Dr. Waterman brought in pizza for all of the students and had us read the final products of flash fiction. Reading my piece out loud in front of the class was both nerve-racking and rewarding, and Dr. Waterman was both curious about our stories and encouraging of our creative talents throughout the entire class. What I enjoyed most about the exercise was that it allowed us to take some of the various storytelling methods we’d studied and find ways to make them our own. For example, many of the stories we read throughout the semester ended with a surprising twist, and I used that technique in my flash fiction piece. Altogether, it was a truly rewarding assignment that helped the class interact more with short stories than we would have otherwise and gave us a deeper appreciation of all the work it takes to write one.

Read Mary Moeller's flash fiction piece below:
A Wedding

I stood at the altar in a rented tux with a red rose pinned to the lapel, her favorite color. Bridesmaids and groomsmen surrounded me, and my best friend Jesse smiled by my side. The music from the piano swelled until I worried the church wouldn't be able to hold it anymore, and it gave way only when the doors opened for the final time and the bride stepped through as a vision of beauty. I can't remember much of what she was wearing; I know it was white, but her smile captured my attention and I couldn't look away. No one could. She looked like a dream come true, like the reason behind every cliché about falling in love. Looking at her filled my heart with such emotion that I worried I might explode.

"Here Comes the Bride" played too quickly; suddenly, she was at the altar and her father was kissing her cheek. My heart raced, my palms sweated, but she looked perfectly calm, like she'd been preparing for this moment her whole life. Her eyes glistened with happy tears, and I remembered pulling all-nighters with her through college, laughing at 3am TV shows until our guts hurt like we'd been shot and we were crying. I remembered the meals she used to make before she learned to cook, how I teased her for months about setting macaroni on fire. Her smile was so bright it lit up the past like an airport runway. But planes can only fly forward, so I faced the altar and stood patiently while the priest said his part.

She pulled a piece of paper out and her smile grew shaky as she read the vows she had written herself to surprise the man she loved. She spoke softly, only worried about one person hearing her. I could hear them just fine. She spoke of days to be shared, of a life full of laughing at stupid jokes and being too busy to get a good night's sleep. She vowed always to love and cherish her husband, and that word made my heart jump like a rock on a trampoline. She swore to face life's challenges together, said she'd never love another soul as much as she loved the one in front of her. Her words touched something inside me and it was everything I could do to remain standing at that altar, staring at her, when all I wanted was take her into my arms and whisk her away. I loved her more in that moment than I ever had in my entire life, and I knew the more time I spent with her the deeper in love I'd fall. God, she was wonderful. So sweet, so perfect. Besides Jesse, she was the only person in the world whose happiness mattered more to me than my own. And so I smiled as the priest gave permission for the newlyweds to kiss and Jesse stepped forward to claim his bride.

Freshman Creative Writing Major Discusses Opportunities to Meet Authors

By Madison White

This year in English 405: Problems in Creative Writing, two authors graced the class with their presence: Michelle Herman and Dandi Mackall. Michelle Herman is an English professor at The Ohio State University and has written many books, including Missing, Dog, and Like a Song. Dandi Mackall has written over 350 books, ranging from children’s books to adult books. Some of the titles include, The Silence of Murder, Larger-than Life Lara, and Crazy in Love. One novel, My Boyfriends’ Dogs, was also made into a film.

For me, having these two women come in and talk to our class about writing was just phenomenal. I, myself, aspire to be a writer someday and listening to these authors about the writing process and about writing in general is just inspiring.

Michelle Herman commented that the name of the class,
Problems in Creative Writing, was appropriate: “Story of my life,” she said. There are quite a lot of problems in creative writing, believe it or not. And one of them is just being able to write something.

Dandi Mackall  commented that sometimes, even when you think that what you’re writing is "crap", you just keep writing. Sometimes you might be able to salvage something from that crap. That is actually a beneficial piece of advice because for many writers, there are “problematic points” in their writing; some would call this writer’s block; others would not. Dandi Mackall herself does not believe there is such a thing as writer’s block.

One piece of advice Michelle Herman gave, which I found helpful as well, is that when you’re writing a piece of work that has two different time periods, just write each piece how you feel it, meaning don't worry if the reader will want to be submerged in that particular storyline for that particular chapter. Ultimately, if the writer is immersed in that section, the audience should also be.

It was interesting as well to hear about how each writer works and learn more about her writing process; each writer worked differently. Whenever the opportunity to pick apart the brain of a writer arises, take it because you never know when you might learn something useful.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Alumni Spotlight: Alyssa Berthiaume

From Ashland University to Ashgate Publishing— How Ashland’s Creative Writing Program Set My Course and Helped Me Succeed
By Alyssa Berthiaume, class of 2007, Creative Writing major 

Around this time thirteen years ago I was a junior in high school and my mother took me on a road trip to visit colleges on my spring break. Our first stop was Ashland. When we arrived, the weather was nothing short of miserable: thunder rolling around in a sky thick with gray, drizzle coming down intermittently, and puddles along the sidewalk as we walked from the student center, passed the quad, and into a huge brick building housing the English department. I had really high hopes for attending Ashland despite my parents’ wishes I go somewhere closer to home (Vermont) and I was determined to not let the weather be any indication of things to come.

The hallway inside seemed abandoned but calm, lights low. A few feet ahead an office door was left slightly open and a professor leaned back in his chair flipping through a paper. As luck or fate might have it, that office was the very place I was meant to be. My first appointment during my visit was to meet with Joe Mackall about the creative writing program and I really wanted him to like me. Thankfully, his dry sense of humor and occasional sarcasm was exactly my style and I felt at-home instantly. Before I left, I had two complimentary copies of Passages, some literature on the program, and the hope that I would apply and come to Ashland the fall of 2003. And I did.

Flash forward to 2007 and I graduated from Ashland with a bachelor of arts in creative writing and psychology. During that final year, Joe, after serving as my advisor for those four years, tried hard to encourage me to abandon my pursuit of a master’s degree in psychology and go instead to an MFA program for creative writing. He knew that I had an irrepressible passion for writing. Unfortunately, the practical side of me— the one that wasn’t convinced I could ever earn a living doing anything with books— won out and I accepted a spot in the University of Akron’s marriage and family therapy program. Shortly after the start of classes that fall, I found myself spending more time in class writing stories about my professors in the margin of my notes than paying any attention to ‘this’ or ‘that’ theory. I realized quickly I had displaced myself. Joe had been right and I needed to make a change. By summer, I switched programs and began the Northeastern Ohio Masters of Fine Arts Program (NEOMFA). I concentrated in nonfiction and earned my masters in December of 2010 with a fully drafted memoir to show for it (that is still waiting to make its debut).

In July 2012, I took a position at Ashgate Publishing, a leading independent academic press, as a marketing coordinator and this past August (2014), I transitioned into my current role as an editorial assistant. In this role, I provide support to the commissioning editors of our art and visual studies and literary studies lists. I facilitate the peer review process for proposals and manuscripts we are deciding whether to contract; I solicit endorsements from scholars in the field to include on the back jacket and in the marketing materials of the books due out for publication, sometimes performing light copy editing on the returned endorsement text; I review ‘final’ submitted manuscripts, making sure they are ready for production; and I perform a variety of other tasks in working closely with our authors, reviewers, and endorsers. I am happy and fulfilled in this role.

Outside of my work as an editorial assistant, I serve as the President of the League of Vermont Writers (LVW), a statewide non-profit organization, originally founded in 1929, that serves all writers across Vermont, providing programming and workshops around the craft and professional development of writing. I help to organize a biennial event called Writers Meet Agents. During a day-long conference, writers attend with the intent of pitching their book projects (anything from YA to sci-fi, to memoir) to a roster of literary agents we’ve brought in from the surrounding areas—Boston, New York and beyond. Most recently, I spearheaded an internship program between LVW and a local college that has a professional writing program, recognizing the importance of real work- experience for the college-age population prior to graduation.

I owe my success in both these roles (editorial assistant and president) to the education I received at Ashland. First and foremost, being a part of the creative writing program at AU was the first time I was within a community of people where writing, wanting to write, and wanting to make some sort of life by writing, was acceptable and encouraged. This climate was present and persistent in every creative writing class I took and was nurtured by the instructors, especially Joe Mackall and Stephen Haven whose enthusiasm for and dedication to the craft was inspiring and contagious. This shared respect and devotion to the written word, from both students and teachers, provided me an unwritten license to do the thing I always loved. And it was that same license that eventually led me into an MFA program and changed my perspective from, “How will I ever ‘make it’?” to “I will make it. And I will make it work.”

Beyond attitude and perspective, serving on the editorial board for Passages introduced me to literary journals, and the production, editorial, and peer review process. The variety of workshop classes I took facilitated my ability to provide and accept constructive criticism, to think critically about my own work and the work of others, and to learn to work and communicate with a variety of personalities. The comprehensive curriculum, including the requirement to take classes with foci in other genres and a certain number of credits in literature, provided exposure to a vast literary canon and further sharpened my critical thinking and textual analysis skills, as well as my own writing. All of these things I apply day-to-day as I work closely with authors on the development of their manuscripts, or writers across the state, emerging or established. They all have high hopes of positioning themselves within an ever-growing and changing body of literature—academic or trade— and I have the privilege of helping them get there.

I am thankful for the AU experience and education which set my course and equipped me with the right skills and abilities that have helped me be successful in a job that pays me to do what I love and what I always wanted to do – work with books.