Ugly Words Can Be Beautiful
I talk to a former student about being an English major and having a job at graduation, as well as a new writing/tutoring program she's launching in Greenville, S.C.
One of the pleasures of a teaching career that now extends past a decade is being able to see former students -- for lack of a better term -- “grow up.” In fact, one of the underappreciated downsides of most adjunct and non-tenure teaching is that we are often confined to 100-level courses and rarely have the chance to develop relationships with students over multiple semesters. I’ve been blessed at two of my stops to buck that trend, first at Virginia Tech, where I taught a two-semester composition/communication/public speaking course with the same cohort of students, and later at Clemson where an internal Creative Inquiry grant allowed for a multiple-semester sequence of courses that involved the starting of an undergraduate campus humor publication, the short-lived, but legendary, The Rapscallion.
Facebook has made it even easier to keep track of former students, and this past Spring has brought some wonderful news into my feed, students earning Masters Degrees, marriages, pregnancies, new jobs, graduate acceptances, puppy adoptions, you name it.
When I heard the news of a new initiative from the original Editor in Chief of The Rapscallion, Adrienne Burris, I not only knew that it deserved some wider trumpeting, but that it was the kind of news that the readers of Inside Higher Ed would be interested in.
We chatted by email.
John Warner: How many years ago did you graduate?
Adrienne Burris: Two. This week, actually.
JW: And when I first met you, you had a different last name. Explain this.
AB: There was this deal with the Witness Protection Program. Also, I got married in October to a boy I met in one of your classes. I decided to keep the name because the double “r” looks quite lovely in cursive.
JW: If memory serves, you majored in English, and yet you have a job. In fact, I think you’ve had a job since day one post graduation. How’d you do that?
AB: The magic of networking. I worked part-time with a clinic for kids with autism, the Early Autism Project, during my junior and senior years. It had nothing to do with my degree, but it was fun work that paid for my nasty coffee habit. Once I graduated, even though I didn’t have a single psychology course under my belt, they were willing to hire me full-time and give me a promotion because of my experience.
JW: Let me ask this, what did you learn in college? Or put another way, what did you do/learn/experience in college that you think provides value to the life you live today? Was college necessary to the path you’re following now?
AB: College was 100% necessary. To be clear, I have not discussed Derrida, written a literature review, or explicated a poem since 2010. I am not going to pretend that any of those things are practical for someone outside of academia – real talk.
College was necessary for teaching me to love learning and establish strong work habits. I’m always asking coworkers how I can help; researching local events; and getting people to explain new techniques. This is a direct carryover from college, where new knowledge (yes, like poetry explication) and extracurricular activities kind of fall in your lap. I got used to learning 24/7, so now I feel empty if I’m not seeking it out.
JW: But my impression of you was that you were a pretty curious person long before Clemson University got its hands on you. There’s a lot of talk about how only STEM majors are worth anything, and you majored in English, Writing and Publication Studies, to be more accurate. Seriously, did college help all that much?
AB: Okay, ye advocate of the devil. Let’s do this. I would have not gotten hired at my current job without a college degree. That’s pretty standard fare. Second, my hubs was a STEM, and he spends all day in a cubicle interacting with nobody but his computer screen. Thanks, but no thanks. Third, I grew up in one of those incestuous small towns from which people never leave. Although I was curious before I came to Clemson, it was a blind curiosity. My college application essay was one of those horrendous “saving the world” types, all generalities and no specifics. Reading it several weeks ago, I wanted to shoot 18-year-old Adrienne in the face.
Taking classes in the liberal arts gave me a wide knowledge base from which I became more confident in myself and my ability to make a real, tangible difference. I started knowing which questions to ask, and in what topics I was passionate. I began to own a cause – education, specifically writing education – that I would have probably never owned otherwise.
That brings me to my next point. I had never heard of Dave Eggers until he visited our campus and spoke about 826 National, the inspiration for my newest project.
JW: I think we’re both excited about this new project. Tell our fine readership about it.
AB: “Ugly Words” is a project I idly dreamed about for a long time, but it wasn’t until my husband forced me to stop putzing on my computer and actually do something about it that we finally launched. “Ugly Words” is dedicated to empowering kids ages 6-18 to write frequently and courageously through a variety of workshops, 1:1 tutoring, and classroom enrichment activities. I was inspired by one of my first clients at the clinic, a young boy who burst into tears or crawled into a corner when I handed him a pencil and paper. As an English major, it actually made me think of times in college when I myself collapsed on the top floor of the library, certain I was going to get kicked out of school for not finishing a paper. Our goal is to remove the stigma from writing, turning it from something graded “right” or “wrong” into a creative and imaginative process.
JW: But you were like a straight-A student, right? And you did an honors thesis, or something? Are you telling me that writing isn’t just something one either can or cannot do?
AB: That’s exactly what I’m telling you. We’re not all meant to become the next great American author, but anyone – when you identify the MO – is capable of putting his/her voice on paper. It’s just something that many people elect not to pursue out of fear. That can be a fear of failure, a fear of embarrassment, a fear of getting it wrong, a fear of something new. I was a straight-A student, but I had a fear of failure. It wasn’t until I (ego-boost alert) started taking classes with you and Michael LeMahieu that I began to write for myself.
JW: And how is Ugly Words going so far in its earliest days?
AB: Not too shabby. We are seven days in, and I have received twelve dozen shiny #2 pencils, as well as tons of emails from interested volunteers. We also have two Facebook fans that weren’t already on my Friends list. Progress.
JW: This question is going to come off weird, but what the heck? Why do this? Why take on this project? You’ve got a job, the aforementioned husband has a job. You’re renting a nice little house, on your way to buying one of your own, I’m sure. You’re well on your way to the comfortable upper middle class (or better) lifestyle we all aspire to, right? What’s compelling you to tackle this particular task?
AB: Screw comfort. I see a lot of families wake up; go to work; come home; watch their nightly television line-up; then go to sleep. The cycle repeats until they retire, at which point “go to work” is replaced by more television or golf. This may be the American ideal, but it’s definitely not my ideal. There is a need in our area – and across the nation – for more programs that encourage strong writers. Writing transcends all professions. Reports need to be written. Memos need to be typed. Family stories need to be documented in journals, and 8th grade student council speeches need to be written. And I’m not the type to wait for someone else to do it.
JW: It sounds like “save the world” Adrienne hasn’t changed all that much, though maybe substitute “Upstate South Carolina” for “world.” How typical are you of your generation, do you think? The New York Times calls you the “entrepreneurial generations” all about the start-ups and the independent action. Are they right?
AB: What a great article. I think I am fairly typical of my generation, in that we are socially aware and long to separate ourselves from the culture of “big business.” In fact, every girlfriend of mine wants to open up a coffeeshop/bookstore/cupcakery. It’s the hipster lady dream. The only difference in my case is that, through genetic stubbornness and good luck, I’m making it happen.
To expand on the article, though, I’ll bring up what my husband calls “zerg rush activism.” In the past, activism has rooted itself in highly organized, hierarchical structure (check out this article in the New Yorker). With social media, our generation can organically gather hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people who have no idea what they’re doing and set them loose. It catches a lot of flack, because it forges weak ties and is inherently low-risk. But out of thousands of Facebook “likes,” you are – most likely – going to find four or five people who take it to the ground.
JW: What the medium/long term trajectory for Ugly Words. What do you hope is on the horizon?
AB: If our pilot programs are successful this summer, we want to spend Fall 2012 building connections with local public schools and providing free after-school tutoring across subject areas. We aspire to take our workshops into the classrooms and support hard-working teachers through the field-trip version of a staycation. Beyond that, I think my longest-term goal is that we would be able to locate a space in Downtown Greenville (one that students from local schools could access by walking or biking) where our programs could take root. When this happens, we’ll be doing it in conjunction with Alchemy Improv Comedy, who would use the space in late evenings for comedy training classes. It will be an epic nucleus of all things creative.
JW: We should tell people how they can help or get involved.
AB: If you are located in or near Upstate South Carolina, we can always use volunteers for our workshops, as well as kids to teach. Each workshop will host 12-15 students, and our goal is to have a minimum 2:1 student-teacher ratio.
But if you are not so lucky, there are still many ways you can help. We have a myregistry.com account where donors can help us purchase pencils, paper, and giant sticky notes for our workshops. I am also soliciting advice from educators on their greatest writing-based concerns for students, so we can address those needs. Learn more at Ugly Words Greenville, or email me at email@example.com. Finally, from the hipster activist in me, be sure to like our Facebook page to keep up with everything we’re doing!
JW: Don’t be a stranger.
Ugly Words news and other things will be tweeted from @biblioracle.
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