Out of Your Element
by Jim Sheeler
One of the first assignments in my Introduction to Journalism class is called “Out of Your Element.” To complete it, students are required to “find a place that takes you out of your comfort zone. Ideally, this should be a place populated by people who don’t look or think like you. Plan to spend at least several hours there looking for a character or characters who can bring you (and, eventually, your readers) into their world.”
Since instituting the assignment, I’ve had a vegetarian visit a butcher shop and a football player spend an afternoon at a Vietnamese nail salon. I’ve had squeamish students visit the morgue and intensive care unit at University Hospital and a student who despises guns spend the day at a Cleveland-area shooting range.
I never realized I was setting up an assignment for myself.
When I left the newsroom for the classroom in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect. Could I translate the skills I had developed over the past 15 years as a newspaper reporter? Could I transfer my optimism and passion for telling true stories at a time when many questioned the future of journalism?
When I left sunny Boulder, Colorado — where I spent most of my life — for a job interview at Case Western Reserve University in 2009, I arrived at the Cleveland airport in the middle of December. I had never visited Ohio; never even visited the Midwest.
Did I mention it was December?
At the University of Colorado, I taught in a dedicated journalism school. I wondered how I would fit in with an English department. I wondered if students who couldn’t major in journalism would have the same passion for the craft.
Almost immediately, there was something welcoming about the big old yellow building and the people inside it. I quickly realized that Guilford is a sanctuary for stories of all kinds. I also found that students realized how transferable the skills of journalism are to us all. Who wouldn’t want to hire an engineer or scientist who can boil down complicated information, or a lawyer who knows the right questions to ask to frame a case, or a doctor or nurse who truly knows how to listen? There are also students of mine who have gone on to careers in journalism, and they’re now on the leading edge of a revolution reshaping news in a field that they can help mold.
In the past two years I’ve cast dozens of students out of their element into a variety of places throughout Cleveland. My immersion journalism/multimedia storytelling class spends the bulk of the semester in the Hough neighborhood at Eliza Bryant Village, the nation’s oldest continually operating African American nursing home. Armed with videocameras, microphones, headphones and cell phones, they’ve created audio slideshows documenting the lives of former actors and gospel singers. They’ve produced audio and video stories of loss, and of love – such as the man who each day counted the steps from his apartment in independent living to his wife’s bedside in the nursing home. Two hundred and twenty steps. My students walked them with him.
For a class I called “Telling War Stories,” the students traveled to the Cleveland Veterans Memorial, where I gave each student a blank sheet of paper and a crayon. They had to find a name on the monument, make a rubbing of it, and then research the life story of the veteran killed in action, proving that he or she wasn’t just a name or a number. They visited the prosthetics laboratory at the Louis Stokes Veteran’s Administration Hospital, then visited with the men and women who lived the wars — along with those who care for them.
Most recently, I returned to the newsroom — this time with eleven of my students who spent Nov. 6 in the center of election night — at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They watched from inside, until 1:30 a.m. when editors at the newspaper in the heart of the nation’s key swing state designed a historic front page.
Next semester we’ll return to Eliza Bryant Village, where we’ll concentrate on the adult day care program. According to the nurses there, the seniors can’t wait to see the students, and share more stories.
Out of Your Element? Sometimes that’s exactly where we belong.
Interview with David Megenhardt
CWRU: This book feels like a mighty undertaking—its loving attention to detail, its lyric flights devoted to the downtrodden, the broken, the deluded, the hopeful but unfit. How did you first conceive of this project?
Megenhardt: I always meant the book to be a large, unruly, literary novel, but the path to that vision was rather circuitous. My first draft came in at a fourth of the length of the final version. I spent too much time cutting, parsing, and reducing the scope of my original vision, either because I didn’t have the confidence to pull off something of this size or, frankly, my skills as a writer or my patience could not support the ambition. I let this first draft sit on a shelf for many years, and when I gave it a second look I thought I could improve it considerably. As I began writing what would become the published version I let all of my self-imposed restrictions fall away. I figured I had one more attempt to get this story right and that I should tell the story as I first imagined it. I don’t know if I would have had the stomach for it if I knew that it would take 350,000 words to complete the vision, but, fortunately, I didn’t know that at the time I began. The true scope unfolded a page at a time over a couple of years. Then, probably around word 200,000 there was no turning back. I wasn’t going to waste all that time on an incomplete novel. I worried about self-indulgence and tried to pity the reader, but like one of the protagonists, Cactus Jack, I wanted to create a grand, epic vision, no matter how foolish or egotistical the idea may have been
The interview continues here.
Sarah Gridley gave a Faculty Work in Progress Lecture at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities in November: “Out Flew the Web and Floated Wide:Tennyson and Green Eschatology.”
Thrity Umrigar read with George Bilgere in the Market Garden Brewery Reading Series in October.
Michael Clune‘s book Writing Against Time will be published in December, 2012.
Denna Iammarino‘s article, “‘From that day forth I cast in carefull mynd,/To seeke her out with labor, and long tyne’: Spenser, Augustine, and the Places of Living Language,” has been published in November’s Renascence.
New Faculty Spotlight:
Hee-Seung Kang, Director of the ESL Writing Program
I was born and raised in South Korea, and I first encountered English in my fourth-grade year, when my father brought our family to Pullman, Washington for his year as a visiting scholar. During that time, since I could not speak English, I made it through each day in school with three phrases: “Hi,” “thank you,” and “okay.” Although going to school with extremely limited English made school life boring and lonely for me, I always enjoyed attending the pull-out English as a second language (ESL) class. The ESL class introduced me to the fascinating world of English; I enjoyed learning its exotic sounds and was enthusiastic about deciphering secret codes (a.k.a. English words). After six months, I gradually started speaking English with classmates.
Returning to Korea after a year did not stop my enthusiasm for English and English literature, so it only seemed natural for me to major in English. As an English major, I felt compelled to study abroad in an English-speaking country, so I studied in the U.S. for a year. Experiencing American college culture as an outsider prompted my interest in learning and teaching academic writing and English as a second language. By what process do people learn English as a second language? How do people become members of an academic community? How do non-native speakers negotiate their identities and power, and find their place in U.S. universities? My motivation to answer these questions led me to graduate school. At the University of Washington in Seattle, I received an MA in Teaching English as a Second Language and a PhD in English Language and Rhetoric.
Because of my experience learning English as a second language, working as the Director of the ESL Writing Program at Case Western Reserve University is particularly meaningful to me. I am also excited that the campus community is becoming more linguistically and culturally diverse, and that we are creating more support programs to help ESL students’ academic literacy development and second language acquisition. To improve our program, the ESL instructors and I will provide sustained support for ESL students, create a bi-directional program that provides cross-cultural experience for all CWRU students, and collaborate with other academic and administrative departments. I hope that students are empowered by their learning and successfully participate in the CWRU academic community and beyond. I also hope that a strong ESL program can inspire in CWRU’s students the same passion for learning that my ESL courses inspired in me.
Danielle Nielsen (’11) presented “Indebted to the Durbar: Women Discover the Colony through Travel” at the November 2012 conference of the Midwest Modern Language Association.
Susie Gharib (’72) received the New York Financial Writers’ Elliott V. Bell Award at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism in October.
Shelley Costa (’83) has a two-book deal from Simon and Schuster for a cozy mystery series set in a family-owned Italian restaurant outside Philly. The first book, You Cannoli Die Once, will be published June 2013.
Ehren Pflugfelder (’05) is now managing editor of Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society.
Lisa Maruca (’97) is now Associate Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English at Wayne State University.
Alum (’10) Jamie McDaniel‘s essay “The Power of Renewable Resources: Orlando’s Tactical Engagement with the Law of Intestacy” appears in a special issue of Gender History: Across Epistemologies, Volume 24, Issue 3, November 2012.
by Monica Orlando
The English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) is now in its second year, and continues to grow and improve in its mission to provide support for graduate students in all aspects of our experience here at Case, from professional development and pedagogy to social opportunities, community outreach, and recruitment of new students.
To promote our professional development, especially in terms of developing and publicizing our own academic work, there are three new groups that have formed this fall under the umbrella of EGSA: a creative writing group, a publication working group, and a graduate student colloquium. Each meeting once or twice a month, these groups are entirely student-run and provide opportunities for graduate students to learn about and give feedback on one another’s writing. In addition to the professional, EGSA’s events committee offers ample opportunities for grad students to spend time with one another in social settings. Some of our recent social events have included a masquerade ball, a trip to an Indians game, spring and fall picnics, holiday parties, and First Friday gatherings. We are also hoping to hold a formal department-wide social event in the spring semester; this event, like a number of our activities, seeks to bring together not only graduate students but also English department lecturers, faculty, and staff in order to develop both personal and professional relationships.
Beyond the department, EGSA’s outreach committee has organized many ways to connect the graduate students with others through donations and service. This fall we have held a bake sale and food drive to benefit the Cleveland Foodbank, we will be collecting items for families at Ronald McDonald House, and we are currently planning a day of service. Finally, EGSA’s recruitment committee has been working to increase awareness of Case’s program among potential students, and in Spring 2012 we held our first-ever Accepted Student Day to give those individuals the chance to meet current students and to experience firsthand the English graduate program here at Case.
EGSA is excited about the many things happening in our new but dynamic organization. Our forthcoming blog, to be titled The Parlor, will provide a forum for us not only to share news and ideas with one another but also to allow others outside of the program, including alumni and prospective students, to find out about what’s happening in the English graduate student community. Look for our blog to go live in January 2013!
Berkson Lecture: “Hands on/Hands Off”
On October 18th, poet Bill Berkson, Professor Emeritus of the San Francisco Art Institute, presented examples of artistic collaborations between New York artists and poets from the 1950s onward in a talk titled “Hands On/Hands Off.” Beginning with the O’Hara/Rivers portfolio Stones, Berkson provided what he called a “capsule history” of notable collaborative projects emerging out of this era. Drawing from his own collaborative experiences with artists such as Philip Guston, Alex Katz, and Colter Jacobsen, Berkson explained how a “new type of synergy” between poetry and the visual arts arose out of a desire to make intersections of word and image more playful, casual, and spontaneous.
In addition to this well-attended talk, Berkson visited Professor Gridley’s introductory poetry workshop, delighting students by joining them in their midterm assignment: to recite a chosen poem from memory. Berkson recited favorites from Shakespeare and Wyatt. Students then shared poems they had written “in conversation” with a poem they had chosen from his collection, Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems. Prior to the class, students had read selections from For the Ordinary Artist, his collection of critical writings, including the following passage: “‘Continue the conversation’ is a prompt I’ve heard more or less at my back for most of my writing life. The phrase implies a continuum of art as a field or social gathering, across which possibilities move, change, emerge and reduplicate over time…” Putting their own poems in conversation with those of a visiting poet was an excellent way for students to experience art as a form of social gathering, and poetry as a tradition that is both echoic and innovative.
The next day, prior to his departure, Berkson led a morning gallery talk at the Cleveland Museum of Art with Professor Ellen Landau (department of Art History). The tour focused on works by Picasso, de Kooning, Pollock and Rauschenberg. Berkson’s lively and enriching two-day visit was made possible by three sponsors: the departments of Art History and English, and the Baker Nord Center for the Humanities.
Fall Semester Events
Brad Ricca and George Bilgere take questions after their poetry reading (November 2012).