After decades of teaching college writing, communication, and literature classes, I ask myself what students will remember two to five years after completing my classes. In terms of writing, I hope they will feel more comfortable in approaching writing assignments in graduate school or at their workplace. I feel certain that they will be more effective communicators as they inform and persuade those within their families, community, and work sites.
American literature is a slightly different matter as there are so many disparate voices out there, Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Anglo Americans – all giving voice to what it means to live in their time periods with the challenges they faced.
I always tell my literature students to not hold their breath as we move through hundreds of pages in our texts as they seek a poem, a play, an essay, a story with an “and they all lived happily ever after” ending.
American authors dig deeply into the American consciousness and explore the complexities, the contradictions, the nuances of what it is to be an author and write “American” literature.
This leads me to a writing assignment that I have given all my students for the past three years, and I think it is an assignment that they will remember for decades. I do it in connection with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize events held each year to commemorate the end of the war in Bosnia.
I ask my students to consider a time in their lives when they were faced with a major obstacle, often an event that they were powerless to change. As they describe the situation, they detail how they came to peace with it, or perhaps they did not, or maybe they accept it at times and struggle with it on subsequent days.
My students range from the 16-year-old who is enrolled in the dual-credit program to the 40-plus-year-old who is in college for the first time or has returned to earn a degree or certification.
My students write of depression, addiction, divorce, the suicide of a friend, abusive fathers, death, and lighter subjects which are nevertheless critically important to them such as career choices and which university will work best for them in terms of their major or a sport they play. A recent one which I found especially tender was written by a student who had come to peace with the recognition that she could not save all the animals who need to be rescued and adopted.
I often return the first drafts of these personal experience essays and ask students to be more forthright, to use words that bring the reader into their challenges, their lives. And they respond.
Some of these essays resonate with me in ways that fine pieces of American literature do: the Marine’s account of the death of his best friend in Afghanistan and the guilt he feels because he was not there to save him.
Another is the mother who comes to an understanding that her child will never be like other children, that the disease he has will require more of her than she ever dreamed possible. Once there was the mother who acknowledged that her own medical condition might mean that she will never live to see her young children graduate from high school.
Some go way outside of what you, my readers, might think a college student would write: an account of being pregnant in prison and giving birth with no anesthesia in handcuffs on the floor of a hospital room.
I am blessed to have these students in my life, and I feel privileged to read their words. My students and I again this year will hear directly from one of the competitors in the Dayton Peace Prize competition.
This year, it is Susan Southard on Nov. 17. at noon in the theatre at Edison State Community College in Piqua. Her book, “Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War,” won first place for non-fiction in the competition.
Professor William Loudermilk from Edison worked with Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation which celebrates “the power of literature to promote peace, social justice and global understanding” to bring this author to Piqua. In doing so, Rab is , as she says, fulfilling the organization’s responsibility “ to get these books into as many hands as possible.”
I eagerly await the arrival of my copy of “Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War” from Amazon because I want to know what Southard’s 10 years of research into the lives of five survivors — teens at the time — of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in August of 1945 reveals.
Perhaps Southard’s book serves as a cautionary tale to all of us at a time of nuclear threats from North Korea and the January 2017 installation of a new U.S. president.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or [email protected]