I'm heading out today to the Institute for Writing and Thinking (IWT) at Bard College. I've heard fabulous things about IWT (Jackie, I know you had a great time there), and I'm really looking forward to my week there!
This IWT week was basically my consolation prize for not getting into the NEH seminar that I applied to; I was incredibly disappointed, and so I decided I needed something else to look forward to for this summer. And that strategy has worked well; I'm now excited about the week to come, and I do think it will have greater bearing on my teaching and my own writing and ongoing intellectual development than the NEH seminar would have. Maybe that's just sour grapes, but I think it's actually true. One of the strong appeals of the NEH seminar was that it was going to be like a grad seminar but without the major seminar paper, which sounded heavenly, but after I got over my disappointment at being rejected for it, I wondered if maybe the whole thing would have been too close to crawling back into the womb; instead of trying to do something that feels wonderfully comfortable and familiar, maybe I should be taking on a new challenge instead. Hence, the IWT workshop.
I maybe should have signed up for one of the two basic workshops, "Writing and Thinking" or "Writing to Learn," which is what IWT itself recommends for new workshop participants, but I decided that I was already a pretty reflective teacher of writing and that I'd rather take something that was going to be a fun challenge for me personally as well as for me as a teacher. After all, this is a consolation prize as well as professional development!
So I signed up for the "Creative Nonfiction" workshop instead. Having gradually moved away from traditional academic writing, with little motivation to return to it, I've thought that perhaps creative nonfiction is a good fit for me, genre-wise, building on many of the same skills as academic writing but with more emphasis on narrative and a wider sense of audience. This FGS book feels like a halfway point toward that genre; it's not really going to be creative nonfiction itself, I'm pretty sure, but it's on that path. Anyway, I'm kind of nervous but also very excited about this workshop ... such that I woke up at 5:00 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep for thinking about the week ahead. So now I'm up and blogging, after which I need to finish my packing.
Participants got an email this week telling us that essayist and novelist Jo Ann Beard will give a reading and discussion on Tuesday night. I hadn't ever heard of her, I'll confess, so I read her most famous essay, "The Fourth State of Matter" (published in the New Yorker in 1996), about the murder of several physics professors by a grad student at the University of Iowa in 1991; Beard was managing editor of a physics journal there and was particularly close friends with one of the victims. It's a really good but devastating essay -- not surprising, given the topic. If I'd had more notice, I would have read her entire book of essays, but I've decided not to worry about that.
What I have been doing for self-imposed homework is finally reading some Peter Elbow, who in 1981 directed the workshop that would become the genesis of IWT the following year. Elbow's ideas are still clearly a major influence in IWT, so I thought I would finally get around to reading him. Elbow is one of those writers and thinkers whom I felt like I knew even though I hadn't read anything of his; I'd heard his ideas distilled so often (mostly when I was teaching comp at Grad School and at St. Martyr's) that I'd never actually bothered to read him. But I happened to have a copy of his Writing with Power; I know that I didn't buy it, so I must have picked up a used copy that was lying around some school or another. Now that I think about it, it was perhaps lying about in my FGS classroom, since he was my department chair's dissertation director at U Mass Amherst.
Anyway, last weekend I pulled it off the bookshelf and decided to read it as a way of preparing myself for this upcoming week (and maybe to make up for the fact that I was skipping over the introductory workshops at IWT). And it's seriously good! In fact, I learned the hard way that I shouldn't read it at bedtime, because then I can't turn off my brain, which is whirling around with ways to use his ideas in my classes next year. I highly recommend it for anyone who teaches writing or uses writing in courses.
I'm mentally treating this upcoming week as another round of English Geek Camp -- I'm anticipating that it will be as much fun as my first English Geek Camp, an AP Summer Institute I did two summers ago, although I imagine that the food won't be as amazing (because, really, what could be that amazing?) and that the wine won't flow as freely. But everyone gets a single dorm room, which is a darned good thing -- I'm too old for roommates I don't know -- and we are encouraged to bring hiking shoes, swimsuits, and, for local folks, even bicycles. I've never been to Bard, but I hear that it's a lovely campus, with wooded trails thither and yon. So I'm anticipating that this will be one of the best weeks of the summer, and I'm determined to enjoy every moment of it. On rereading my post from the 2010 English Geek Camp, I'm suddenly reminded that I felt some social anxiety there at mealtimes; I'm always better in a formal classroom setting than in the free-form arena of socializing outside of class. Hmm. Well, I shan't borrow trouble and fret about that ahead of time. And perhaps it will be socially an experience more like the one I had in 2009 at an NEH seminar, in which I made a friend whom I still keep in touch with. I'm also realizing that I don't consider that NEH seminar English Geek Camp, I think because we were staying in a hotel and it really felt more like a conference -- a totally fabulous conference -- than like "camp."
In re-reading my old blog posts about those two previous experiences, I'm realizing that in both cases I was completely brain-exhausted afterward and wanted to do nothing but lie around the house recovering. So it will be interesting this time around that I'm not actually going straight home afterward but am rather spending the weekend with two old friends who live close to the Bard campus. I haven't seen them in probably a year and a half, so it will be great to visit with them, although I'm suddenly a little worried that I won't be well-equipped for socializing after a week at English Geek Camp. Ah well -- again, no point in borrowing trouble, so instead I'm just going to look forward to the whole thing as one big adventure!
And with that, I'm off to finish packing!