Creative Writing Professor in the LA Times

By Loree Iverson, Student Intern Writer CHASS College Computing
August 16, 2010

Susan Straight, professor of creative writing, has published an article with the LA Times in which she argues for the importance of the humanities. Lamenting the severe downturn trend in the popularity of reading, Straight begins: “A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling a small wave of despair about being a writer and teacher at a time when common wisdom holds that ‘no one reads anymore.’ But then some of my UC Riverside students sought me out on campus to thank me for introducing them to a book.”

She goes on to list the novels that were assigned to her students during her Fall 2009 senior seminar class, demonstrating the collective emotional and intellectual effects each of the books had upon the class as a whole. “I gave them several novels to read. And I tried a new approach,” Straight explains, “Instead of standing before them, proclaiming what I believed about the books, I broke the students into four groups and asked each group to present its book in a way that would make their classmates pay attention and feel something.”

In Cheryl Klein’s novel “The Commuters”, Straight describes how the students of that group concluded that the overall theme of the book revolved around the concept of “home.” “For their presentation, they stood in front of us and drew maps of their hometowns ­ Fallbrook and Hemet and La Habra and others ­ and how they intersected. A Loma Linda native talked about growing up among crowds of medical-coated health professionals and vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists; then a student from San Jacinto explained that she was connected to Loma Linda because it was where her infant was on life support for three days before she died. The whole classroom became silent.”

The group who read “Still Water Saints”, by Alex Espinoza, decided to focus their discussion on the topic of “belief”. Straight illustrates the presentation of this group as such: “One student laid out an altar of cures from her grandmother, who was born in Mexico's Michoacan state ­ teas and herbs, foods and prayers. The student's mother had died when she was a baby, and her father raised eight children alone, in a small house in San Bernardino, with the help of the abuelas. Another student told of a horrific car accident in which his car rolled over and he should have died. Instead, he told the class, the Buddha hanging from the rearview mirror split in half and absorbed his spiritual death. He told the class how his Chinese-born parents kept him away from windows at night so that wandering ghosts wouldn't see him. A young woman from Rialto told of taking her mother home to rural Cambodia to be healed of a jealous rival's spell; the healer prayed and rubbed the mother's skin, pulling out embedded shards of broken glass in different colors for different agonies.”

The final group read Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”, and despite Straight’s initial reluctance to assign the novel, the communal effects that the book impressed upon the class as a whole ultimately allowed her relinquish her doubts. “On presentation day, I couldn't imagine what the "Winesburg" group would do,” Straight recalls, “The group presented us with small pieces of paper and a leather satchel, and directed us to write down the most shameful secret we'd always held inside. Something we'd never told anyone. The folded pieces of paper were mixed inside the bag, passed around, and we each read one secret aloud. Students had poured out their guilt: about a pregnant cousin who had been ignored when she was desperately in need of love and counsel, about a lizard burned alive in a jar, about a childhood injury inflicted on a relative who never fully healed. Even now, I can hear us reading aloud, in our desk chairs, all facing forward. A 90-year-old book brought us there.”

“I wrote the article because that fall class had been in the Los Angeles Times in September, when I asked if they wanted to participate in the walkout,” Straight explains, “But the class itself was also so fascinating, in the composition of the students, in the fact that I was developing a new course, and in how they responded to the books. I wanted to defend our own ‘humanity’ in the way we learn about other humans from art and literature and each other…recent developments in society have led many people to want students to focus solely on ‘career’ majors, sometimes at the expense of majors or even courses which allow students to grow as people and citizens.”

Criticism of the humanities based on the grounds of practicality in the “real world” is a recurring struggle in academia. “Teach students something practical, many Americans say, something to help them get jobs and support themselves. But I believe that to thrive in the world, we must also understand what it is to be human,” Straight says, “As Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living. And right now, when retreat and distrust and anonymity divide us, it's more vital than ever to examine not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us.”

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