Saturday, April 25, 2015

Russell Weaver Publishes Edited Collection

I am pleased to say three weeks ago my third book was published. Unlike my first two books, which were scholarly in nature, this was devoted to teaching. I had actually written a fourth book in the late 90s about teaching, but my current publisher, Peter Lang, did not elect to publish it. However, my current book Teaching Literature at Ridgeview was accepted by them for publication.

Ridgeview refers to Ridgeview Classical School in Fort Collins, CO. My connection with the school is that a former student of mine, Florian Hild, has been teaching there since its inception in 2001 and for a number of years was its principal. During that time he introduced an approach to teaching that was modeled on my own pedagogy. This method has been adopted by virtually all the disciplines at the school.

For the record Ridgeview, an open-enrollment school, is ranked by U. S. News and World Report as the top high school in Fort Collins, the #5 school in Colorado, and #58 charter school in the country. I had been discussing what was going on at Ridgeview with Florian for a number of years. He and I continued to cross paths because he was married to John Stratton’s younger daughter Elaine, and he regularly visited Ashland. As it happened, my wife’s middle son moved to Fort Collins in 2008, and I realized that I could drop in at Ridgeview while we were there and see my “grandchildren,” i.e., the students of my student. It was thrilling to see third-graders discuss Treasure Island at a high level as well as seeing the older students discussing the Aeneid and Heart of Darkness in ways that were familiar to me.

After my second visit there in 2009, the thought of writing a book about Ridgeview occurred to me. My previous book on teaching had rooted simply in my own teaching at AU, not a stage to galvanize attention, but Ridgeview was one of the top-rated charter schools in the country. I posed the idea to Florian, and he was very enthusiastic. They were frequently asked to consult with other schools who visited and saw high school students discussing Plato and Sophocles and wanted to be assisted in doing the same thing. Having a text of sorts would be useful in this regard. In addition, Florian had been trying to get his teachers to reflect on their teaching and articulate what they did, but this project had never gotten off the ground. Having a more specific task in view, especially one that involved publication, attracted ten or so teachers in the beginning, including two math teachers and the kindergarten teacher.

On my next visit, I discussed with those teachers who were interested in writing for the book my ideas for how the book should be approached. It gradually became apparent that not all of those who initially expressed interested were up for writing essays for our book. My idea was that they would begin their essays with an account of their journey to Ridgeview: how they had begun teaching, how they heard of Ridgeview and what their experience there had been like. After this I thought it would be useful for our audience—principally high school teachers—to describe one key aspect of their teaching so as to give a kind of starting place for anyone interested in experimenting with this approach in their own classroom. I also thought we could have appendices that would contain syllabi, study questions, and sample papers.

Most of those teachers who had expressed interest sent me a draft of their essays. I don’t think they were prepared for my critiquing what they had written, but it was absolutely necessary. I had never had to critique peers in quite this way before, even saying either you need to change your essay or yours will not be included in the book. We ended up with only three of the original ten sticking it out over a number of revisions, with one of them being Florian. Two of the other essayists were former students at Ridgeview. One was attending Carleton College and one was beginning her teaching career in an inner-city school in Denver that Ridgeview had been asked to consult with.

This teacher’s story is wonderful. After teaching for one year there, she decided that teaching classes that had many students who were non-native speakers or who were totally illiterate was going to be too hard. She decided to apprentice at Ridgeview, but the fall before she was going to begin, a teacher with whom she had actually worked as an aide suddenly quit right before classes began. Florian offered her the job, and she accepted. I have seen her teach a number of times, and she is a fantastic teacher.

When she came to Ridgeview in the ninth grade, she was totally uninterested in school. She had been suspended from an IB program school (International Baccalaureate) that had the reputation of being academically serious, but she said it meant nothing to her. When she walked into Florian’s class, they were discussing the difference between fate and destiny in Oepidus Rex. Even though she was intimidated by the discussion, she said it was impossible not to want to join in. She stayed and flourished.

The other essayists who taught at Ridgeview are the seventh-grade English teacher, a high-school classics teacher, and Florian. I was particularly interested in the classicist’s story because he came to the discussion of texts in a similar way that I do through translating Latin, asking what does this particular word should mean in this particular situation. I remember reading his essay for the first time in a twenty-four hour IHOP near the motel where my wife and I were staying. It was four in the morning, and I couldn’t sleep. When I read his essay, I started crying over his beautiful essay, seeing someone who was not my student but who felt exactly the same way about teaching and texts that I did.

The remaining three essayists were the Carleton graduate (now studying medicine in Dublin, Ireland), and two of my former students. One teaches in a small rural Ohio high school where he teaches his students Homer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Emerson. The other is a philosophy Ph.D. who was then teaching as a visiting professor at Stanford University. I thought it would be good to show that this way of approaching teaching was applicable to many different venues. I too contributed an essay to the volume, in addition to editing it, in which I describe how I came to approach teaching as I do.

When the book was finished, I explored a number of the traditional publishers of books on teaching English, but none were interested in what we had done. However, I happened to notice in grazing through teaching books on Amazon that Peter Lang, my publisher, had also published books in this field, so almost on a whim I asked my editor what she thought about this project. She was very encouraging, and within a month I was informed that they would publish our book.

I forgot to mention earlier that E. D. Hirsch, an internationally known educator, had mentioned Ridgeview in his book, The Making of Americans, as one of the top charter schools in the country. As a result of his interest in Ridgeview, he agreed to write a blurb for the book’s cover.

After all this I have no idea whether anyone else will be interested, but it is gratifying to see a project like this come to fruition after six years of work.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Shakespeare in Cleveland: English and History/Political Science Departments Team Up for Field Trip

By Sarah Ludwig, English major

A portion of the group after dinner at Cowell & Hubbard
This past Sunday, I traveled to Cleveland with other students and professors in the English and History departments to see the Hanna Theatre’s adaption of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Going into it, I had hoped that the performance would bring something unique to this timeless comedy. I had wished that the performance would divert from a typical interpretation that one would expect and offer something unanticipated. I was extremely happy when the play did just this.

There are many aspects of the play that I found memorable. Right from the start, the set caught my attention. In the middle of the stage sat a large glass paneled box that could open and close. Throughout the entire play, it was never removed. However, its purpose constantly changed. It was inventive to see how the simple glass box resembled the ship powering through the tempest in the opening scene and then changed in the next to indicate a space on the island. Even more spectacular was the effect the box had on the lighting. The reflected colors created an almost ethereal atmosphere that added to the supernatural elements of the play.

Along with the set design, I was pleasantly surprised at the artistic interpretations of the characters and of Shakespeare’s text. One character that stuck out in particular was the island’s native, Caliban. He was depicted as a Marilyn Manson-like character. It gave him a very edgy, rock star quality. I thought this unexpected interpretation worked well with Caliban’s character and emphasized his outcast status. Normally, I would dislike a character like Caliban, but the play’s interpretation gave Caliban a certain appeal that was so uncalled for that I couldn’t help but appreciate him.

Many new ideas and materials were used that I found unexpected yet significant. While some of the choices were questionable, I liked how it made me look at the old Shakespearean play in a new light. It was refreshing to see The Tempest performed in a way that I would never have considered. I am extremely happy that I took the time to see this play with some of my classmates and professors. It provided me with a great opportunity to take a break from classwork and to enjoy the performance of one of the texts I am studying. I recommend The Tempest to anyone who wishes to see a different take on a classic Shakespeare play. I look forward to other opportunities like this in the future!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Composition Students Respond to Tom Montgomery Fate Classroom Visit

By Hilary Donatini
On March 30, Tom Montgomery Fate, author of Cabin Fever, visited my English 102: Composition 2 classroom the morning before his public afternoon reading. We had a wonderful conversation about the book, which we had been reading for a number of weeks, as well as a more general discussion about the writing process. Below are the reactions of selected students from the course who represent a range of majors. All found a personal connection with the text as well as the value of studying such a piece of creative nonfiction for their own growth as writers. I look forward to their final papers: 8-10 page analytical research essays incorporating Fate's book as well as outside research.

Zavier Buzard, Psychology

Over the course of our English class this semester, we have been reading Tom Montgomery Fate’s Cabin Fever. Tom Montgomery Fate is an average American citizen who lives in normal civilization with a family, job, and is active in his community. However, he built a cabin in the woods of Michigan for a place to go and read the writings of Henry David Thoreau. By going to the cabin and living off of limited supplies away from civilization, Fate is able to look at the society that we live in from an outsider’s perspective. Fate analyzes what the world we live in today has come to and voices his opinions on specific situations. He also forms ideas off of Thoreau’s writings to view topics in an “old fashioned” manner.

Our class was extremely fortunate to be able to meet Tom Montgomery Fate and talk to him in person. The class was able to ask him questions and learn some of the ways that he thinks, writes, and develops his ideas. Being such a talented writer, Fate’s advice was very valuable and I was able to pull a lot of information from our discussions with him. He explained to us the ways he put together the chapters of Cabin Fever. He also explained the way he became a writer and his life experiences before he started to take writing more seriously. Fate shared with us his techniques and thoughts on how to become better writers. I also found it very interesting to see how he thinks of a topic compared to the way I think about the same topic. By analyzing his skills, thoughts, and ways of writing, I was able to broaden my ways of thinking and writing. 

Terrell Hudson, Criminal Justice
During our recent class sessions we have been reading and talking about Cabin Fever. When I first started reading the book, I wasn't sure what would be interesting about guy who is just writing in a cabin in the woods. During one of our class sessions Tom Montgomery Fate was considerate enough to attend one of our class sessions and allow us to pick away at his mind and discuss his book. As a class we got to ask him questions about his reasons for writing. He said he would go to the cabin when he had free time away from his family, which wasn’t often, and he would spend hours and hours just putting his thoughts on paper. In the cabin he felt free; he was able to block the world out and just focus on his writing. I can't say I have a favorite chapter in the book, but "The Art of Dying" caught my attention because in it he is raising awareness about the world.

Tyren Jackson, Sport Management
The visit from Tom Montgomery Fate was a great way to connect with the author. He was a laid back, intelligent, mysterious person. His reason for writing Cabin Fever was showing where he goes to have a sense of tranquility. I asked Fate a question about why he went to the cabin and what the cabin means for him. He answered “he went to the cabin to escape the regular life, the cabin was where he goes to think.” To this day he is trying to figure out what he wants to be in life. The way he answers questions causes you to think as well as listen for his answer. He answers most questions with a question because he wants to know how you feel before he states his feeling. I found it interesting that Fate is a professor. He has responsibility of grading papers, teaching, and looking after his family. Authors would write in their free time but he found ways to fit the time in because he loves to write. That made me respect Tom Montgomery Fate even more.

Nicole Lederle, Integrated Language Arts Education
We had the privilege to speak with Tom Montgomery Fate in an intimate classroom setting. As a class, we had read and discussed the majority of Cabin Fever leading up to the day he came in to speak with us. At first, he introduced himself, and we did the same. He wanted to know our names and our majors, which made the mood a lot more personal. He showed us videos of the cabin’s surroundings so we could get a real visual of what he was writing about. The videos were my favorite part because it allowed me to think of the chapters I read and put myself into the stories. He answered all of our questions the best he could, sometimes going off in a tangent that allowed us to learn more about him. Some questions had to do with his passion for writing, while others asked for clarity or purpose for particular chapters in the book. He was personable and was not intimidating, which allowed the class to feel open to asking questions. This made talking with him really easy. I have never met an author of a book I had read, and being able to meet Fate was really an honor for me. It was really a great opportunity to be able to ask him about his work and talk about his inspirations. After Fate spoke to us, he autographed my book with a personal message, and I will forever cherish my copy of Cabin Fever.

Abby Shafer, Early Childhood Education and Intervention Specialist
Tom Montgomery Fate’s visit and reading was very informative and interesting. It was great to hear some specific things he was thinking about as he was writing the book, such as inspiration for the topics he chose to put in the book. Fate went into more detail about some of the stories he told in the book and we got to know some more information about the people in the book too, such as his wife and his friend Dan, whom he mentions in several chapters. Fate explained that he uses etymology numerous times in the book because that is something Thoreau did a lot and he also likes to talk about the original meaning of words instead of using the more current definitions. I thought it was interesting to hear how Fate chose the cover of the book and the meaning behind it. He said the picture on the cover is supposed to show that since he can’t live a balanced life all the time, like he does when he is in the cabin, he likes to take the person he is when he’s at the cabin wherever he goes. Fate also said that living a deliberate life is a perpetual act of finding balance and it is hard to find this balance in our world today. It is clear that Fate wants people to think deeply about his writing because during his visit if he was asked a question, he would often ask the same question back to the person because he was interested in the way others analyze his book. I learned a lot from Fate’s visit and his reading, and I think this allows me to have a better understanding of Cabin Fever.

Amelia Sidley, Nursing

My experience with Tom Montgomery Fate and the in class discussion and reading were very enlightening. I enjoyed listening to Fate talk about his experiences with developing his book Cabin Fever. I was interested to find out that many of the chapters in the book we actually published first as radio essays and then put into the book later. Throughout the book there was a lot of underlying meaning in a lot of the chapters. We were able to ask Fate about some of these passages and he explained what he was thinking when he wrote them. It was interesting to hear what he meant by a lot of the passages and being able to compare it to what I thought when I read the same passages. Fate was very open to answering all of our questions and would often respond to our question with asking the question back to us. He was very interested to hear what we thought about many of the chapters in the book and of the book as a whole. One of my favorite parts of the experience was when we discussed the cover of the book in our in class discussion. He asked us what we thought the meaning of the hawk feather on the cabin meant and then he told us why he choose that as the cover having to do with escaping society. It was interesting to me that he found that as a painting separate from the book and found it to fit and used it as the cover of the book. Overall the experience was very beneficial to me even as a non-English major to be able to develop my writing further. I was able to take away some writing advice from Tom Montgomery Fate.

Tyler Sibbersen, Finance
 While the class was asking questions to the class, Fate would often ask the same question to the person who originally asked the question. He left much of the questions to open interpretation. Before answering, Fate wanted to hear first what we thought of the passage. He would use these to shape his response so that we could better understand, but he also opened up a new way of viewing his own passages. Sometimes writers may not be able to see things from a certain point of view, and being able to interact with the readers allows them to see the ways their passages relate to others. I thought it was important that Fate has had the chance to interact and gain feedback from readers, especially those at a college level. The way he responds can tell you a lot about what kind of a writer he is and what his approach is. Fate seems to leave much of his work open for interpretation, which is one reason why I believe his work is successful. Having Mr. Fate visit our class was a great experience and opened up the book for understanding. I recommend having him back or authors of future class works to visit.

William Totten, Biology

Since we are writing our papers on Tom Montgomery Fate’s Cabin Fever, it was great to have him in for a class visit. Interacting with him let us know what he thought about what the passages he wrote meant in comparison to what we thought they meant from our interpretation. Throughout his book when he had a thought as the narrator he made sure he approached the idea from the outside in. He took moments in his life and turned them into bigger scenarios and thought about them deeply. Having him in class provided a better experience in understanding the book. He was a very nice guy and was willing to communicate with us. He was very open in discussing anything in his book and we had great conversation amongst our peers. I really liked the video he showed [about the "Lake Glass" chapter in Cabin Fever] to give me the actual visual of what he was talking about in his book. I also liked how open he was to talk about the cicada section in his book and the procedure on his wife and how their friend died of cancer. His intellectual mindset helped realize that I should reread some sections and explore further what the book actually is trying to say to me. I felt that his visit will be crucial for my paper because with this type of paper very in depth thinking is essential.

Brooke Zwilling, Middle Grades Education

Tom Montgomery Fate visited our class while we were reading his fifth book, Cabin Fever. Throughout his visit, we had a discussion about both the book and about his process as a writer, amongst other things. The origin of the title Cabin Fever was one of the various topics we talked about, and how the modern day idea of cabin fever is the opposite of what it was during Henry David Thoreau’s time. Something he talked about during his visit that I found interesting was how he does not feel that he has found the deliberate life that he wrote about in Cabin Fever. We also talked about what the cover signifies and about his previous novels that he has written. That day he also gave a reading on campus, and the reading was a great supplement to reading the book. He read different passages that he enjoyed and thought were important, and was able to give a bit of a discussion on the different passages that he read. After he read different passages, he read an article that he had written a few years ago about the dangers of smart phones, which is something he felt strongly enough about to touch on in Cabin Fever as well. Fate admits that he eventually broke down and got an iPhone, but had decided to write the article before buying the smart phone. Having Fate visit campus and our class was a great experience, and added great insight into the book.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

URCA Presentations Showcase Student Achievements

By Hilary Donatini

Charlie Michel presents on Glengarry Glenn Ross
On Wednesday, April 8, the College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium showcased some of the brightest and most accomplished students at Ashland University. I had the privilege of sponsoring two students presenting on Frances Burney's 1778 novel Evelina—English majors Emily Cardwell and Kristin Herrick—both of whom delivered sophisticated arguments about the representation of gender in this important literary text. Both essays grew out of an assignment for English 408: Eighteenth Century English Literature. It was gratifying for me to witness the evolution and refinement of their ideas, from brainstorming for their essays in the course to adapting their writings to an oral presentation format. In a testament to the impact of our Core classes, Charles Michel, a math major, presented on the representation of capitalism in the film Glengarry Glenn Ross. His sponsor was Dr. Maura Grady.

Integrated Language Arts major Megan Scarberry presented on E.M. Forester's A Passage to India, which originated in an essay for Dr. Sharleen Mondal's Literature and Gender course. Megan found value not only in the experience of presenting, but also the opportunity to learn from the other students: "I really enjoyed the opportunity to present at the symposium on Wednesday. It was awesome to be able to share my work with the student body, professors, and the community. It was also very interesting to see presentations from other fields of study while learning about things I may never have otherwise."

Creative Writing major Garrison Stima read a personal essay originating in a writing workshop course, concerning an encounter on a mission trip in Chicago that changed his understanding of his faith. He describes the development of the project: 

The piece I wrote began as an assignment for my Problems in Creative Writing class where we were asked to describe a moment or short scene in great detail, trying to keep the action within a short span of time. After completing the first draft and reading it to the class, my professor and URCA sponsor, Joe Mackall, encouraged me to submit my work to the URCA symposium. 
I ended up doing so, and the process of preparing the piece was an interesting one because this was the first scene I jumped to when we were given the assignment and the first nonfiction work I'd ever written. We worked for weeks on it as I attempted and eventually managed to grasp the right words to describe this powerful fragment of my life. 
Actually presenting at the URCA symposium was a far easier task, despite baring my soul to a crowd made-up of mostly strangers, because the people organizing the symposium were quick to help and answer any questions I had from start to finish. I had no problems working with anyone affiliated with URCA and they only aided the process of presenting and solidified my experience in an extremely positive manner. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Composition Students Reflect on Cummings Class Visit and Reading

By Hilary Donatini
I decided to feature some works from our spring reading series writers on my English 102: Composition 2 syllabus this semester. On March 23, J. David Cummings, author of Tancho, visited my class, sharing his writing process and providing context for understanding his poetry. Two of my students who attended both the class session and the afternoon reading agreed to write about the experience: Amelia Sidley, a nursing major from Thompson, Ohio, and Jessica James, a social work major from Loudonville, Ohio. Their responses show how core classes such as freshman composition can open new intellectual vistas for all majors.

Amelia Sidley:
I found the experience of the J. David Cumming’s reading and class discussion to be especially enriching. Cummings was a very interesting person to talk to, and I really enjoyed being able to sit and converse about Tancho. I found it extremely interesting how he came about writing the book and how he was able to organize the poems in an order that made sense to the overall image of the book. From this experience I got to hear a different perspective on many of the poems, from the author himself. A poem that I may have interpreted one way he saw a different way and it was interesting to be able to compare my ideas with his. Being a nursing major and a non-English major I may have taken the experience a different way. I was able to ask questions on his writing process as well as his revising process that I could apply in writing my papers. I was able to have an insight into something that I would not always be able to have in my major, and I think that this experience will only help my writing abilities in any class. This experience was very beneficial to me as the reader of the book as well as someone who wrote about it.

Jessica James:
At first when I heard about the poetry reading that J. David Cummings was going to put on, I wondered how exactly it would work. And who would want to sit for that long and just listen to poetry being read? But I am very glad I went! Hearing David Cummings read his poetry aloud really brought it to life and made me think about it on whole new levels. He paused in certain parts and separated everything out how it was suppose to be and it helped me truly understand the poetry. I also thought it was very interesting when he talked about the order of the poems in the book, and how they were not originally planned this way. Of course, nothing is perfect the first time around, but when you think about a professional and published writer, you just don’t think of them making mistakes and having to edit as much; but truly, they probably do more editing and revising then just an average writer.

I was also privileged with the chance of having Cummings come to my English class earlier in the day before his poetry reading. This allowed me to get a background not only on how the book was developed but also on his life, and it really allowed me to understand where all his poems in Tancho came from. The one thing that stuck out to me was that he actually worked in a laboratory that actually worked on the development of nuclear bombs and weapons. But he didn’t agree with the thought and idea of them, so he gave up his career to become a writer. Sometimes when reading poems or stories, the reader will wonder, does the author truly know what they are talking about or did they just do very extensive research? Cummings actually had experience and background around the nuclear weapons, which is what partially inspired him to write all these poems. Overall, the experiences I had with J. David Cummings really opened up my eyes and made me have more appreciation for poetry.