I don’t have to tell you that the last few months have been a challenge. Our alumni are out there, across the country and the world, dealing with All the Things: disrupted child care arrangements, sudden work disruptions, illness, uncertainty, grief.
Back here in the English Department, we are wrapping up a semester unlike any other. We have faced our own difficulties and disruptions, large and small. But we have gone through it together, which makes me confident in our shared future.
Faculty members and staff have come to the aid of each other and their students. I hear almost daily from professors looking to help students navigate the perplexities of the present moment, be it an advising question, a technology problem, or a personal issue.
Professor Kathryn Ludwig approached me in July to ask how we could support faculty mental health in this extraordinarily stressful time. She had not just questions but ideas. Within a few weeks, working with Professors Allison Hitt and Emily Scalzo, she had arranged a virtual visit from the counseling center for our faculty, which led to the establishment of a set of “self-care cohorts” and a series of virtual, casual social events that have continued throughout the semester.
Other faculty members signed up to become part of a bank of ready guest lecturers who could step in for colleagues dealing with disruptions of all sorts.
To me, this mutual care has made the English Department as much a community as ever, despite the enforced isolation and the cold comfort of Zoom chats.
Maintaining this sort of community requires work, planning, and resources. For years, a key community-builder has been our robust schedule of on-campus events. Ordinarily, these would range from career readiness programming in the former Stars to Steer By series (now Cardinal Directions)—in which alumni speak about how their humanities education served them in their vocations and form connections with today’s BSU students; to public readings from nationally recognized writers and scholars; to meetings of our many student organizations, such as the English Education Club and Poetic Summit.
But the university wisely curtailed public events this semester. What to do?
In our fashion, we squeezed this particular set of lemons into lemonade. Creative Writers have started the “Ball State Writing Studio,” a series of live, virtual weekly craft workshops for students via Zoom.
And in recent weeks, we had the privilege of receiving energizing virtual visits from rhetoric scholar Margaret Price, a national leader in issues of mental health and disability in higher education, and W. Todd Kaneko, a dazzling young poet frequently featured in Poetry, the nation’s leading poetry magazine.
Professor Price spoke about the complexities of time in academic life, including the strange co-existence of fast time—the deadline-oriented hustle from class to class, assignment to assignment, deadline to deadline—and slow time—the frustrating wait for systems at a university to change and respond to the needs of individuals.
Kaneko read from his arresting, troubling, and funny poems, which delve into the complexities of family relations and U.S. racial history, in part through the surprising vehicles of professional wrestling and martial arts. An Asian-American of Chinese and Japanese descent, Kaneko presents legendary martial artists from around the globe as figures of outsized, mythic heroism. They both embody and undercut the social desire for an uncomplicated masculinity. His more recent work contends with the legacy of the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Unifying these very different talks was a powerful sense that the past is always with us: that hope for the future lies not in overcoming or getting beyond our past but in dealing with it. We must carry the past, these speakers seem to suggest, neither as baggage nor as inspiration but as knowledge–knowledge that levels our sight and holds us accountable. “No future, no matter how liberating, leaves anything behind,” Prof. Price wrote in an essay she shared during her visit, calling on us to recognize the harm we and others have suffered but to recognize it as inseparable from development.
Kaneko’s speakers recall family traumas by juxtaposing the exaggerated masculinity of fighters with the realities of marital discord and disrupted childhoods. Giant Baba—a world-famous Japanese wrestler— is granted the power to “[loom] dark against the stars/blotting out the Milky Way, arms cradling you and your family history.” Kaneko’s “Elegy for Bruce Lee” mourns a lost father with whom he bonded over Lee’s films: Lee’s otherworldly gracefulness is the dance of life and death; the kinetic force of his kicks is the sharpness of grief, “a fist and a promise to hurt someone….It will punch through everyone.”
Living successfully with and through this nexus of past, present, and future—healing the past while accepting change and loss, envisioning a future while taking care in the present moment—is a life’s work. And preparing students for this work is the heart of what English Departments do.
Literature and Creative Writing classes call upon students to make meaning from their cultural and personal pasts. Rhetoric and professional writing classes foster the ethical practice of communication with designs on the future. Linguistics classes delve into the deep structures of language—the primary legacy passed on by our forebears in the human race. And English Education classes stimulate students to reflect on their educational pasts as they envision a future where education is restored to its rightful role as an engine of social justice and mobility.
We are grateful to pursue this work in community with each other, and with you. You can help us with the work of maintaining this community. Contribute to the Ball State Foundation to support our programming and extracurriculars. Hire or mentor one of our graduates. Come visit us and share how your education in English prepared you for a fulfilling life.
Thank you for all that you do. We in the English Department wish you safety and comfort and all blessings in the New Year.