Friday, August 30, 2013

A Few Reflections on the Nearness of a Dream

By Paul Dyczkowski, Creative Writing, English, and Philosophy major

It forever and forever strikes me, ignites my curiosity and wonder and appreciation: Ashland University is such a wonderful place, much larger in its containing of hope and wisdom and opportunities than we, we who are here and have grown a little blind to just how good it is, much larger than we remember. I, too, have a tendency to forget, though. I just recently had to not forget. I like when life works like that.

Recently, I found a whole lot of beauty, and by “I found,” I mean to say that it existed independently of me finding it in the first place, when all these wonderful artists and students and writers and humans gathered for what is known as the residency part of our low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing for an intensive two weeks of lectures, panels, readings, meetings, revisings, writings, drinking, eating, drinking, writing, not a lot of sleeping or resting, but yet a whole hell of a lot of fun. To see all these people from all these walks of life and literature, gathered with the main premise of giving and taking, working together, sharing, when they gathered like that, it couldn’t help but create a wonderful, contagious, dream-making, dream-chasing sort of environment that does nothing but good for the writer’s pen and the inkwell heart.

I mean the environment of the residency itself was contagious, the nearness of a dream: a roomful of people loving and listening, working and writing. It occurred to me at the time that maybe the last time I had simply listened to a reading with so many other people around me, I was perhaps on the multi-colored thin scratchy carpet of kindergarten. Realizing that made me a little angry, a little sad, just because we as humans shouldn’t forget to listen to live readings, live artists, the artists that are not just living but are alive, alive, alive with words and wounds and worlds. There are many great writers alive today with deep connections to Ashland. It baffles me. You need to see it for yourself. Check out River Teeth, Mackall and Lehman’s creative nonfiction journal, established right here in Ashland, semi-annually, that frequently lands essays right into this giant of an anthology that’s published each year, Best American Essays, whose editor Bob Atwan spoke and listened alike here in Ashland back in 2012 for the inaugural River Teeth nonfiction conference.

The environment of the residency itself was electric, charged, charging, still hurtling along all of our lives who were there (I’m sure of it) like a great thunderhead, a great rain on and into the topography of our pained hearts. Really, reader, I’d love for you to imagine the intentness, the focus, the love these people had for literature. I’d love for you to have sat in Ronk every night with us, the lights cool and soft and hear all the live readings of today’s literature, some of the very best of it written anywhere in the globe right now, too. I’d love for you to feel that quivering humming silent sound of love and beauty like invisible flying buttresses between the reader and the audience, Ronk filled up with people, filled up with quiet and the strain of I don’t want to miss that word or this piece because maybe it could contain, if nothing else, a piece of a piece of the piece missing from my heart.

I’d love for you to have heard Tom Larson’s wild piece about falling in love in snowy Chicago and falling more in love with literature and falling in love with jazz and writing and falling in love. I’d love for you, without having the slightest clue that this would happen, to have seen the look in Mr. Larson’s face as he stepped away from the podium during his piece, softly turning with sad eyes and starting up a Keith Jeret improvisational jazz piece, since Larson was working on tying together writing and literature and jazz and love and how improvisatory it all is. I’d love for you to have heard Nick Flynn clap his hands once, sharp and wise and aware in his own love of singing and music, to gauge the tone or pitch of Ronk before he crooned out some old, old folkish jazz ballads. I’d love for you to have heard out of Joe Mackall’s new memoir, our own Joe Mackall, thank god he is writing another book, by the way (I know I can’t wait.) I’d love to have the time and space and memory and the heart to conjure up all these other wonderful images of the residency.

James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

So it may as well have been, too, that Sarah Wells and the rest of the people at Ashland handed me some secret star charts to guide my writing craft along these deep dark troubled waters of today, when there are fewer readers and writers and those pursuing empathy, kindness, consciousness, if I permit myself the liberty of interpreting Baldwin’s quote a smidge, as well as a little dipping of my toes into the soft sea of sorrow. Sometimes as a young writer you can just feel so lost. Sometimes, no matter what you are doing, you can feel so lost.

Yet, I not only think Baldwin is on to something, but also I feel as though I had the opportunity to truly feel the essence of his idea during the residency here at Ashland University: art, and we, as works of art, exist to connect to and with one another. I, a shy small strange man, I who so often does not want to be open enough to connect and listen and learn, I truly got to feel the power of that connection from from art to heart, from heart to art, the pulsing and bobbing of a piece of twine in between two tarnished tin cans strung by our true and almost child-like impulse to truly converse, when, it may as well have been that the lovely and kind Sarah Wells (as well as all the other good people at Ashland that let me work alongside them—Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman and Deborah Fleming and Steven Haven especially) let down to me a rope, a thing to grab on and try to pull myself in a new direction (as that is learning, to find a new and better direction, yes?), an opportunity to help out with the poets and creative non-fiction writers who gather as students and faculty to all better their craft, I who am shy and strange and trapped in the little well of my little heart, who could always use more bettering.

All I am trying to say, though, is that I am wanting to say a whole lot of things like thank you and my goodness here it all is, here it all is, look at all these graduate students these faculty members these people these best-selling authors like Brian Doyle and Cheryl Strayed and the gems of our graduate AU faculty like Angie Estes and Carmen Gimenez-Smith and Mark Irwin and Bob Cowser and all these people, forgive me, there are really too many to name, yet let me name some, because that wouldn’t be much of a thank you either, that wouldn’t be fair to you, reader. Faced with the immensity of names and experiences, I am only orbiting around the center of this piece, wanting to talk about some of the beauty, on so grand a scale during the residency, that I got to see right before me for two weeks: a group of human beings trying to make meaning (art) and share it with others (the art of love, of communication, of community.) I’m just thankful I got to be so close to such wonder, such essaying, such people.

Monday, August 26, 2013

AU Research and Writing Community

This fall brings the launch of an exciting new initiative, the Ashland University Research and Writing Community (AURWC), a program created and facilitated by Dr. Sharleen Mondal, Assistant Professor of English.  The AURWC trains participants to learn, practice, and receive support and accountability in developing habits that are empirically proven to improve faculty research and writing productivity, work/life balance, and teaching efficiency and effectiveness.  While the fall pilot program serves only faculty, if the pilot is successful, the program will be expanded to serve graduate students and undergraduates working on long-term writing projects.  This means that both faculty and students at Ashland who participate in the AURWC will receive small group support and individual coaching to achieve their writing goals, furthering Ashland’s “accent on the individual” philosophy and providing a core community of other scholars and writers, reducing isolation in writing and increasing the likelihood of a productive and rewarding writing experience. 

Dr. Mondal developed the AURWC as follows: with the generous sponsorship and financial support of Ashland University Provost, Dr. Frank Pettigrew, and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Dawn Weber, Dr. Mondal participated in a national program, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity’s Faculty Success Program (or “faculty boot camp”), in Fall 2012.  The following semester, with the support of Ashland University’s Professional Discipline Experience Grant and in collaboration with the Faculty Development Committee, Dr. Mondal developed a similar program to the Faculty Success Program, tailored to the specific needs of Ashland University.  During the grant period, Dr. Mondal consulted with Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, to get feedback on the AURWC modules and to receive training in how to facilitate and coach such a program.  Late in the spring 2013 semester, the AURWC call for applications went live and the pilot program’s participants were selected. 

Four faculty members across colleges at Ashland University are currently participating and the program has been publicized through a recent presentation Dr. Mondal delivered at Faculty College; if the program is successful, current participants can be trained as future coaches and the program can expand into multiple small groups of faculty and students.

The AURWC is one of many examples of initiatives developed by English Department faculty who are committed to supporting both faculty and student scholarship, and who are passionate about developing opportunities for researchers and writers to thrive in their academic careers while experiencing the joy of truly being part of a scholarly community.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Alumni Spotlight: Renee (Fannin) Beck

By Renee (Fannin) Beck, Class of 2013, Integrated Language Arts major

Last May, I graduated from Ashland University. At the time, I was nothing but excited and looking forward to beginning my career, with the slight apprehension of what the next phase of my life would bring. A much-needed rest and time spent with my family were needed this summer so I spent as much time focusing on them as possible.  I’m now preparing my own classroom at Loudonville High School, which will fill up soon, with students who will undoubtedly expect me to know all the answers. I may not have every answer, and I may not be able to fix every problem; however, one element that will not be missing in my classroom will be passion. If I learned one thing at Ashland University (and I learned many things) it’s that there is no room in education for those with a lack of passion and understanding for this generation of learners and a drive towards instructing them to the highest level of their ability.

While at Ashland, I met my husband. We were married between semesters my junior year and welcomed a daughter into the world during finals the same year. I would not have been able to complete my education without the patience of my professors. I learned the importance of compassion, of recognizing potential. Humanity has a drive, an innate instinct for learning. We are continuously striving to expand our minds in whatever form the individual is particularly inclined. As educators, recognition of the individual is crucial—not only in the element of learning but in every instance.  I would not have finished my degree if my professors at Ashland had not also recognized this. I was not looked at as one of the masses; I was seen by them for who I was and for what I was capable of becoming. They believed in me, inspired me, helped me, pushed, strove, compromised with me every step of the way and they cultivated—even more finely— within me, a desire for learning and for the distribution of that learning that influences every action, every day, and only burns increasingly brighter the more I learn.

I will never cease in my endeavor of learning. I will never allow my students’ minds to lay complacent, I will strive daily to inspire, cultivate, and embed the desire for learning while remembering they are all unique individuals with different learning styles. I will adapt, flex, compromise, help, push, and believe in them the way my professors taught me to.

I will never give up. I learned that at AU. I walk past the university with my daughter –now 18 months old. She coos to herself, laughs, fusses and points at the tall buildings. I remember dashing in and out of dorms, digging through my purse for a flash drive while running to Patterson to print out term papers with already extended dead lines, laughing with my friends. Crying sometimes. I remember finding out I was pregnant the first day of my junior year and realizing, I may never graduate. I wondered how I would ever be able to take care of a baby and finish school, thinking maybe I’ll just postpone graduation and go back later. Looking back, I will never regret my decision to trust my professors, to believe in myself and to finish my degree. 

I graduated with a job in my field. Two weeks before graduation I was hired. My employers were impressed with the education I’d acquired at AU and I got to walk across the stage, accept my diploma, knowing I had a way to provide for my family. There is no greater accomplishment than that, and I owe every bit of it to Ashland University, its esteemed faculty, and the “accent on the individual” motto that is more than just words –I’m living proof. Thank you, to all those who had such an impact on my life, I will never be able to adequately repay you.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Alumni Spotlight: Shawndra (Thompson) Russell

By Shawndra (Thompson) Russell, Class of 2003, English major and Applied Writing minor

My first major was Psychology, but I quickly switched to Education before finally settling on English my senior year--mainly to avoid student teaching! All of these experiences helped lead me to my current career: the owner of a digital marketing and writing company based in Savannah, Georgia, Shawndra Russell Communications, LLC.
How did I get here? I didn't set out with any entrepreneurial goals, but majoring in English has been the best decision I've ever made thanks to the content-driven world we now live in. Everyone needs content, from the bakery down the street to multi-billion dollar global companies. The content I create manifests in the form of tweets, Facebook posts, direct emails, freelance articles for magazines and newspapers, blog posts, books and more.
The extensive writing assignments assigned by Dr. Weaver and thoughtful discussions led by Dr. Lehman were just some of the building blocks for my career. Like many English majors, I figured I would eventually teach English and did so for about four years. But two years ago, I realized that I was a hypocrite. There I was, telling students to chase their dream careers when I wasn't doing the same. Yet, those 3 1/2 years as an Education major also paid off because a part of what I do is teach other business owners how to master social media.

I loved focusing on English so much toward the end of my collegiate career that I decided to earn a M.A. in English from Marshall University. There, more heavy reading and writing assignments helped further strengthen my creative thinking muscles and prepare me for a career based on writing.

These degrees have led me to publishing two books: How to Become a Freelance Writer in 30 Days, and Couple Friends, a contemporary women's fiction title. Thanks to several English professors from Ashland, I learned that editing is not a dirty word.  I can crank out a first draft of anything without anxiety, which is immensely helpful for the daily demands of my content creating career. This realization was one of the most powerful lessons of my life.

My education has led to a self-designed career that affords me freedom and more financial potential than any standard 9-to-5 I could have pursued. Amazing doors have been opened as well, like being asked to become the Savannah Correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide and a regular contributor for the new magazine Society South (launching soon!). My husband was also able to quit his job and work with me full-time, helping small business owners with their content needs in addition to creating digital products. Our latest venture is creating a soon-to-be-launched website that will provide resources for aspiring female writers and entrepreneurs at

Shawndra is a digital strategist that helps small businesses tackle their social media and the Savannah correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide. Read about her services and work at

Monday, August 5, 2013

Alumni Spotlight: Don Rickett

By Don Rickett, Class of 1965, English and Speech major, Psychology and Philosophy minor

“The Duke,” Dr. Richard Snyder, considered by students as the most difficult English professor during my time at Ashland College from 1961-1965, was my mentor. He was my counselor, my freshman English instructor, and my Advanced Composition instructor. As a farm boy from Wooster, Ohio, I needed a professor who would not put up with my nonsense and would force me to study. His power-teaching methods forced me to learn the rules for writing essays. Coming from a small school in Wayne County, I had not written an essay in my life. In fact, I failed the first three essays from Dr. Snyder; however, I ended doing well not only in the freshman course, but also in his Advanced Composition course. I adopted his methods as a teacher for my 43 years as a writing instructor for high school and college students. After finishing Ashland College, I went on to receive two Master of Arts degrees from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. One was for Public Address (Speech) and the other one was for Secondary Administration. 

I taught high school English for thirty-nine years (1965-2004) with four years in Ohio and thirty-five years at Greenfield-Central High School in Greenfield, Indiana. During my thirty-five years at Greenfield-Central High School, I also taught in the evenings and on weekends all three levels of freshman English at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) for four years. Working in conjunction with the writing program directors of fifteen colleges and universities in Indiana, I developed the writing program at Greenfield-Central High School. In 1977, only 5% of the seniors at Greenfield-Central High School were testing out of or being exempt from a freshman English course in college. By 1984, because of my program that percent increased to 55%. In addition, during that period, I assisted seniors in getting a total of $14 million in scholarships with many of those scholarships requiring evidence of writing skills. In 1994, I developed The Writer’s Notebook for my students. This manual contains all the writing notes I expected students to have so they could listen to the instruction instead of taking notes during the instruction. In 2001, Greenfield-Central High School adopted this manual as the official writing manual for all students.

I have been president of Sertoma of Greenfield and the Greenfield-Central Classroom Teachers’ Association, chairman of the English Department at Greenfield-Central High School and of the negotiating team for the teachers in the Greenfield-Central School Corporation, a building representative for the teachers in this corporation for thirty years. I have developed drug seminars and job seminars for teens, worked as a GED instructor for Greenfield-Central and Walker Career Center, and developed the writing program, created a writing center, co-authored a Health Curriculum Guide for grades K-12, and co-authored the Gifted and Talented Curricula for Greenfield-Central High School. I even served as one of the original directors for the creation of the Indiana Teachers of Writing Association, which I am still a member of today

After retirement from high school teaching, I became the Writing and Speech instructor for Vincennes University. I was the instructor for their courses in Greenfield for four years. For the next two years I tutored high school seniors with writing fundamentals to assist them in achieving higher scores for the SAT and ACT exams. The goals for all of these students proved to be achieved. In 2010, I finally ended my career.

During my teaching career, I was Teacher of the Year from Greenfield-Central High School four times (1984-2001), Greenfield-Central School Corporation one time (1999), and an Indiana State Finalist one time (1999). Also, I was given an award five times for Influential Teacher (1994-2001) and a Faculty Award for Most Effective In-Class Learning Experience (1989). I was selected as Sertoman of the Year for Indiana (1984) for services to the community, and I was the creator and original director of the Central Indiana Chess Association. The State Superintendent recognized my Senior Technical English program as the only such program for non-college bound seniors in Indiana. 

New Feature on the Blog: Alumni Spotlight

By Hilary Donatini

Last week, I sent an email message to all English, Creative Writing, and Integrated Language Arts majors for whom the AU Alumni Office had contact information. I asked for updates on our graduates' career paths and accomplishments. Responses starting flowing into my in-box and are still trickling in. In hearing from recent graduates, retirees, and every stage in between, I've been struck by their varied job experiences and impressed by the important work that our alumni have been doing throughout the country.

Our first spotlight profiles Don Rickett, Class of 1965, a retired teacher inspired by legendary AU professor Richard Snyder, whose name graces a literary prize sponsored by the Ashland Poetry Press and a poetry collection on the fifth floor of the AU library.

Don's story is the first of many that will appear on this blog over the course of this school year and, I wager, beyond. I hope you will enjoy reading about the flexibility and ingenuity of our majors as much as I have.