Writing in Concert comprises two parts: teaching a common text and writing about the experience using memoir, reportage, and criticism.
This year's texts will be Kindred and Blood Child by Octavia Butler, the first science fiction writer ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant (1995) and recipient of Hugo and Nebula awards. Butler, who died last year at 58 years old, described herself as "comfortably asocial--a hermit in the middle of Seattle--a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."
Students will study the common texts in close reading, discussion and preliminary essay exercises. The idea is to develop an intimate relationship with a text, learn about yourself as a writer from your responses to it, and then, by creating a mini-course syllabus and lesson plans, learn how to help readers at different stages in life and literacy find their own ways to enter the text. Learning the work takes three to four weeks; teaching requires four to six, with some overlap. We also work with intensity and focus on issues of learning and teaching to prepare students to teach at several urban learning sites, each with its own challenges and charisma: high school English classes, a church-based book group, adult education centers, a recovery house, and homeless shelters. On Friday, April 7th, students attend a panel discussion and reading featuring other African-American sci-fi writers who will read from Butler's works and describe her influence on them and the genre at Art Sanctuary, a North Philadelphia arts organization at the Church of the Advocate www.artsanctuary.org. At least one other university will participate in this citywide project that makes deep connections among the academy, literature, writers, readers, and learners.
The final essay will reflect each student's experience with the text, teaching, and the Reading in Concert performance. It is likely that some of you will want to submit it somewhere for publication, or use it for inclusion in a longer work. Clearly, the emphasis during the term is on focus, practice, learning, relationships, revision, and language. It comes at you from all sides, a literary bum's rush meant to dislodge comfortable writing habits and push you toward intense, carefully thought, and deeply-felt nonfiction prose.
Here's a taste of what a couple of the last year's students wrote:
Community grows me. This is the point I must make here. If I don't start by saying it I'll try to convince myself otherwise. The praise of community is a painful admission for me. I don't want to have to need people. I don't want to admit that community is far more powerful than my own devices. I cannot harvest myself. I cannot truly grow without other people. Every point of my life affirms this need for others. I have never thrived on my own. Yet I can't shake the notion that maybe, if I just give solitude enough time, a break through will come. For some reason I keep my expectations of the future separate from my experiences of the past. I expect to be able to accomplish great things on my own but it has never happened that way. I expect to be disappointed or misunderstood by others yet this has rarely been the case. I expect that teaching Sonia Sanchez will require an outpouring of my intellect and wisdom, yet my most profound moments of learning have come through community experiences.
Maybe I'm afraid that I don't have enough to offer them in return. Sometimes I feel like a fraud trying to teach 9th graders lessons that I still haven't really learned for myself or that I still struggle with as a 21 year old. I think there is a perfectionist lurking somewhere inside of me. She never comes out when she should, like when I need to keep my room clean, or meticulously edit a paper. She only comes out after the prep work is done to make fun of me and remind me of all the skills I don't have. She often reminds me of how I changed schools so many times between middle school and high school that no one could catch that I never took Algebra 1 and struggled to pass every subsequent math class as a result. No one noticed that I had never had an introductory English course in high school, so I never officially learned how to write a paper. No one caught that I spent 4 years in high school and never took a real history class. I may be the only person to ever slip through the cracks and still manage to maintain an A minus average. My foundation is shaky and every time I step in front of a classroom, I fear that someone may discover a crack and the mansion I've built on top of it will come crashing down. --Tracee Thomas