Poetry for Community Colleges

It would hardly be news, at this point, to say that 2009 has been a big year for community colleges.

October 21, 2009

It would hardly be news, at this point, to say that 2009 has been a big year for community colleges. In many ways, it seems their day has finally come: for example, President Obama has made them a key part of his plans to aid the country's economic recovery and increase the number of Americans with at least some college education, and NBC's lighthearted (if not entirely laudatory) new sitcom "Community" is off to a strong start.

But for Kay Ryan -- for decades a community college teacher, now 16th Poet Laureate of the United States -- that's all more or less background noise.

Today marks the official launch of Ryan's project "Poetry for the Mind's Joy," an initiative through which she hopes to draw national attention to community colleges, as well as drawing the colleges' attention to poetry. She plans to do so in a variety of ways: for starters, by reading her poetry at community colleges across the country -- and this she has already begun, with a reading at the College of San Mateo, in California, last month. She'll also have her own Web page on the Library of Congress's poetry pages; Ryan's page will have a community college focus, and should launch in early 2010. Further, she'll collaborate with the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA) on a poetry competition for community college students.

Finally, the project calls for the establishment of April 1 as National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses. On April 1, 2010, with help from the CCHA, Ryan will speak to participating colleges via live Webcast; she'll also hold a conference call with representatives from various campuses. "I’m going to be circling in a satellite," Ryan jokes. "Kind of like Santa Claus, you know. I’m going to come down all the community college chimneys on the same morning."

David Berry, executive director of the CCHA, says that if all goes well, the event won't be a one-off. "We’re going to try to reach as many community colleges as possible ... to build involvement in this day. I hope it’s going to continue."

While the timing of her initiative coincides with a period of heightened recognition of community colleges, Ryan says her decision to highlight them isn't related to that -- although she is gratified by Obama's call for additional spending on two-year colleges, and "excited" to watch "Community." For her, however, the issue is "very, very personal."

Until her selection as Poet Laureate in July 2008, Ryan was a part-time, adjunct instructor at the College of Marin, a midsized community college in the San Francisco Bay area. For over 30 years, while writing the poetry that eventually brought her national recognition, Ryan was also teaching basic English skills: “Really basic English skills, like developmental reading and writing; you know, our ambition would be to write a paragraph -- a good paragraph, with a topic sentence and supporting points." (Ryan's own writing is characterized by brevity, wit and linguistic dexterity, as well as a tendency to subvert the reader's expectations; her many famous poems include "Turtle" and "Home to Roost.")

But community colleges were part of Ryan’s life even before she began to teach, for she herself is a graduate of Antelope Valley College, in Lancaster, Cal., at which she got an associate degree before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English.

"I couldn’t wait to get to UCLA," Ryan says, "to get away from the community college, and it took me a number of years to have it truly dawn on me that I’d been treated much better at community college than I was at UCLA … [where] I was in classes of 300, and … I didn’t ever talk to my professors, I talked to the TA, and often my papers were graded by a whole rotation of TAs. If I had three papers, they would wind up graded by three different TAs, and there’s no coherence, there’s no relationship.… And at community college, all of my instructors knew my name; I had a personal relationship with them. Which is beyond price."

Still, it wasn't just her own history with community colleges that inspired Ryan to take on this project: "The most pressing reason," she says, "is the death of my partner, Carol Adair." Adair, Ryan's partner of 30 years, died of cancer this past January. She, too, was an instructor at the College of Marin, but full time. "Carol’s life was just extremely occupied with her teaching," Ryan says. "It really was her art."

Adair, Ryan continues, "was massively important in my ever getting anywhere" (Adair's efforts to get her partner's poetry career off the ground have been described elsewhere), and it was Adair who urged Ryan to accept the position of Poet Laureate, which she was initially reluctant to do. After her spouse's death, Ryan decided to stay on for a second term as Poet Laureate (Poets Laureate are appointed to a one-year term, but may be offered a second) to keep busy at a time when she knew she "was going to be unhappy." And the idea behind calling attention to community colleges has much to do with Adair, and her own, far less celebrated career.

"I’m the Poet Laureate; that’s the credit that I’ve gotten for my work," Ryan says. "Carol got a whistle on a lanyard. You know, it says 'Teacher of the Year.' That’s what she got. That was the reward for her brilliant lifetime of -- life-changing for so many students -- work. She got a tin whistle on a lanyard."

Ryan hopes that by focusing her attention on community colleges, she can help them get some of the respect -- and even celebration -- to which they have long been due. And if that celebration were to be accompanied by greater financial support, so much the better. In an ideal world, she says, "I would like to see them funded on par with four-year colleges... to receive equal funding."

Failing that, she wants to see them recognized for "the excellence of the instruction, the promise of the students, and the usefulness of the institutions."

Of course, for a community college instructor, herself a community college graduate, to be the U.S. Poet Laureate at all -- well, that's no small thing in itself. "I’m doing the project without having to do anything," Ryan laughs, "just by shouting from the rooftops, 'I spent my life teaching community college, I graduated from one, and I think they’re great!' "

Ryan will be giving three readings in conjunction with the launch of her project: tonight, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; October 30, at the Community College Humanities Association's national conference in Chicago; and December 8, at Antelope Valley College, her alma mater.


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