Monthly Archives: February 2013

Dear Dr. Papillon,

One of the recurring themes in PGS is the deconstruction and examination of traditional academic models. Dr. Heilker’s module, for example, explored alternate interpretations of the essay. Essaying, he told us, should be an act of reflection and discovery – a concept that threw many of my classmates for a loop.

There is far more to the essay than five standardized paragraphs detailing diction, syntax, and figurative language. I am lucky enough to have figured this out long ago, thanks to a writing mentor with an interest in creative nonfiction who always encouraged me to experiment with the form. But because most students are only taught the standard AP model, they miss out on the fascinating ways in which an author can play with structure to suit their interests and needs.

The surprise of my fellow students broke my heart, but our situations were quickly reversed upon the group’s arrival in Athens. With one or two exceptions, I have had consistently miserable experiences in history classes. Names and dates were presented in a vacuum, and a great deal of gritty, fascinating detail was expunged from our lessons because it wasn’t relevant to testing. A week packed full of history and archaeology was as unfamiliar (and, I will confess, vaguely unsettling) to me as essay-writing was to many of my peers.

Our time in Greece repaired much of that damage. Ancient propaganda in the form of carved smiles, mutilated boundary markers as a blow to morale, hubris-filled architecture inciting civil war – these are elements of history I will remember because they tell a story.  The rhetorical elements of architecture and design are a physical testament to human nature: people honoring or one-upping each other, making dubious economic choices, and constantly causing scandal through art. Nothing about that has changed through the centuries, for better or worse. The fact that citizens of past centuries were as complexly motivated as anyone alive today is something I have always known but never genuinely felt until our travels through Greece. And that, to be frank, is embarrassing and sad.

I am quite distressed that I came to this realization so late in my academic career – not for myself, but because I know that there are others like me who may never have the chance to travel with or learn from good storytellers. As someone who wishes to teach in the future, it is a valuable lesson. Enthusiasm, attention to detail, and the freedom to explore are vital parts of the creative process, and actively incorporating these elements into teaching can resurrect a subject in the mind of anyone who’s willing to listen.

Thank you.



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Home Sweet Home

This was originally written as a style assignment for Dr. Heilker, in which we had to follow the structure of an essay as closely as possible while substituting in details from our own experience. If you’ve been keeping up with any other PGS blogs, this may sound strangely familiar…


The town of West Chester, Ohio, lies on the shore of the proper midwest against the terminal moraine where the glaciers stopped, looking south into Cincinnati, and beyond, to an ocean of soybeans and corn. From the south, I-75 aims for Toledo, bends slightly to the left at the traffic-snarled exit for Tylersville Road, and eases past one of the many industrial parks towards the massive IKEA sign with a plaque welcoming folks to West Chester Ohio tacked beneath almost as an afterthought, bringing the traveler in on Mulhauser Road towards a chain of stoplights which are almost never properly synched with one another.

More streetlights than trees shade the street. Along the sidewalk, which exists along only one side of every road in town, a group of Lakota West cross country runners jog in a red and white pack. Their path has taken them through a random patchwork of strip malls, restaurants, and extended stay hotels and back towards their overweight coach, whom they loathe but to whom they are somehow completely dedicated. At the Skyline Chili, another shopping center begins. A breeze from across the road brings an irritating blast of ragweed and dried grass clippings, a slight smell of creosote from the railroad tracks, the particulate matter from the thousand exhaust pipes and smokestacks from the factories lining the interstate and, from across the parking lot, the faint smell of broth from Soup Du Jour, another restaurant which will be out of business in a month. The owner, returning from another smoke break, disappears inside.

The pack of runners cruises into Beckett Ridge, the nearest neighborhood, and continues its steady pace for five minutes, ten minutes, then loops around at the top of the hill to crawl northwards back towards the high school. They are too tired to yell at anything at the few passing cars filled with people that they know. The artistic director and self-appointed Queen of Lakota West’s theater department peers out from the driver’s seat of her SUV as she passes the group. Her nephew, sipping a mocha frappuchino, rolls his eyes at the runners out the window.

The rest of the neighborhood is empty. The group moves north past Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs’ parking lot, the pavement littered with gum wrappers and discarded cigarettes. A young man sits on the swiveling stool behind the counter, slightly greasy from handling fast food in the small and poorly air-conditioned shop, tapping away at his cell phone with still-gloved hands. He is not Nathan. Nathan of Famous Hot Dog fame is a New Yorker who died in ’74, far away from this chain restaurant outpost with its fake leather swiveling stool by the window that looks out across the parking lot towards the school. The parking lot is otherwise empty; the usual customer are have stayed at home to avoid the heat. A girl, perhaps someone the young man knows, pulls into the parking lot, thinks again, and executes a perfect three-point turn to head back out, and he sees the dull glint from the bumper of her ’99 Jetta.

A half-mile away, a graffiti-smeared freight train rumbles along the tracks running parallel to the expressway, the conductor blows the horn as the engine approaches a crossing; the diesel roar is the only thing that cuts easily through humidity this thick. Following the railway lines might lead you somewhere interesting if you had a sense of adventure, which nobody in the town has got.

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Not an “or,” but a “both-and…”

Note: This is a modified version of a journal response to The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing, by Joseph Harris, and to a number of the ideas we’ve discussed in Dr. Heilker’s module.

Rugged individualism is somewhat overrated. People simply don’t exist in a vacuum, and I for one am not at all uncomfortable with the idea that I am defined by the communities of which I am a part. Comfort with the concept doesn’t necessarily translate to flawless functionality, though, and my personal history with my community networks is a little tangled.

My traditional camaraderie- and location-based groups of friends and family are not the ones directly relevant to this discussion. In these, at least, I am usually the proper mixture of challenged and content — I’m good at expressing emotion and affection openly around people I love, and generally know where I stand in my relationships with others at any given time.

My place in academic communities, on the other hand, is frequently awkward. Humanities, Science, and Environment isn’t a big major, and even on campus people are often confused over what it is I do. I am in many ways a walking contact zone – I’m smack in the middle of the humanities and sciences, and folks on either side don’t always know how to react. Scientists read me as a liberal arts person, which has been interpreted variously as Damn Hippie, Grammar Nazi, or Not Academically Hardcore. Liberal arts people read me as a science person, which sometimes translates to Environmental Nutjob, Raging Technophile, or Atheist By Default. For the record, I don’t consider myself any of the above, but these are all assumptions that acquaintances have actually made about me in real life. It gets a little weird, but the most exasperating part of the whole process is the constant threat of not being taken seriously.

When you’re in a small and actively interdisciplinary major (particularly one with a rather long name), you spend a lot of time having to explain yourself. Yeah, I’m not quite this, I’m not quite this, I’m some of that – oh, it sounds like I’m a walking identity crisis? Okay, yeah, thanks for that, Random Citizen. I got so fed up with the constant call to explain myself and my acronyms that I started getting simultaneously snarky and apologetic about my “hipster major,” turning self-deprecation into an offensive weapon. Or I’d say I was something else entirely, claiming I was majoring in Professional Writing or (never and) Environmental Science because those communities were easily identifiable reference points and it was easier than having to go through my whole spiel yet again.

Enough of that noise. It might take a while, but I am going to choose to view the tension between my interests and their respective communities as a strength.

I mean, I’ve always held this philosophy in everything that didn’t apply directly to, you know, me: my favorite art is mixed media, my favorite musicians cross a range of genres in their work, my favorite books and movies can rarely be pinned into one discreet category. Even my favorite foods are fusion combos that blend unexpected flavors. I am quite familiar with the concept of hybrid vigor — mutts are often healthier than many pedigreed animals, because crossbreeding reduces the chance of inheriting recessive traits in a genetically closed line. The list goes on — each new layer of complexity makes a subject more interesting, and the topic can be applied to  communities (and to individuals, I need to remind myself more frequently) as well.

A range of interests, motivations, and backgrounds within a group might lead to arguments and questions of identity, but it also prevents stagnation. Everybody is interdisciplinary in the greater scheme of things. The conflict and confusion that occurs when we try to categorize ourselves in definitive ways is natural, and it’s great fuel for conversation — the very thing that keeps our communities interesting, active, and alive.

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Grocery Run

Some items to consider when you’re shopping at the Denner:

+ Lipton Yellow Label. Yellow Label is the only caffeinated drink you’ll readily find in the tea aisle. Trust me, I checked. There are all the fruit teas and herbal tisanes you could desire, exotic flavors like red currant, vetiver, and rhubarb brightly illustrated for those who can’t read German. The Yellow Label isn’t bad, but I’m rationing my imported stash of English black tea all the same.

+ Haribo Turtles. I’m used to gummy bears and worms, but these are something else: dense gems filled with a bright gel in any number of fruit flavors. Lecker gefullt! the packaging announces, neglecting to admonish parents to watch so their kids don’t choke on the treats. They are delicious but difficult to chew, and if you’re willing to be uncivilized it is easier to rip them in half with your teeth. There’s probably an art to this that I haven’t learned yet.

+ Toast. Well, it’s called Toast, but you get to do the charring as you see fit. Small blocks of bread are pre-cut to the size of your palm, preservative-free and so inclined to go stale within a day or two. One variety is called Super Toast!, pasty-pale and distinctly Wonderbread-like, and the packaging is splashed with a stylized American flag. The rest of the packaging is written in German, and I am left questioning the target demographic.

+ Bergmilch. Though all the milk here is ultra-pasteurized, they must use a different process than they do in the states. It tastes distinctly of cow, like organic milk does back home, and always seems lukewarm even when it’s come straight out of the fridge. It’s fine for adding to tea but hard to drink plain, even the skim. I feel guilty for not liking the animal flavor — this is what milk is supposed to taste like, after all, and it seems I like the neutral taste of plastic packaging better than the reminder that this was once in something alive.

+ Lemons. Half the lemons are wrapped in matte black paper, numbered in red and faintly metallic gold. The labeling fits a bottle of whiskey better than it does a fruit. There is no explanation for why some are wrapped and some are not, but the crate of black and yellow citrus resembles a carton of overgrown bees from across the aisle.

+ Easter eggs. Or what look like Easter eggs despite the fact that Lent hasn’t started yet — shells dyed a variety of jewel-like colors, sitting unrefrigerated in clear plastic cartons on the shelves. The room-temperature eggs have alarmed many students, who can’t imagine a world where that is sanitary. I have been suspicious of any sort of egg for my entire life, and so they’ve simply been an amusing novelty rather than something I want but am now afraid to approach.

+ Nutella. The hazelnut spread has swapped places and price points with peanut butter, a fact the American students alternately rejoice over and lament. I am not particularly attached to peanut butter but I’m sure I’ll miss it some time in the indeterminate future. For now the novelty sustains me as effectively as the food.


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