Podcast on The Craft of Writing Memoir: Derek Owens’ Memory’s Wake

The craft of writing memoir and the subject of recovered memories and post traumatic stress syndrome were among the topics as I visited with St. John’s University English Professor and Vice Provost Dr. Derek Owens. His latest book is entitled Memory’s Wake and tells the story of an abusive relationship between his grandmother and mother. The book is part memoir, part biography, and part research project. Owens is also the author of a book about the teaching of writing I really enjoyed called Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation.

You can listen to the podcast below or via iTunes by searching for Prof. Torg’s Read, Write, and Teach Digital Book Club. Also, you can help the podcast attract listeners if you’ll take the time to “rate it.”  Link to iTunes and the podcast page here.

Derek Owens Memory's Wake William Torgerson St. John's University writing memoir

So that you can get a sense of our discussion, I’m including my questions below:

  1. Memory’s Wake is your telling of the abuse relationship between your grandmother and your mother. You also include a lot of the history of upstate New York and research about memory and abuse. So it’s part memoir, part biography, and part research project. Is that a fair description? As to the question, what’s Memory’s Wake about, would you have anything to add?
  2. I’ve latched onto the phrase, “Every Story Has a Story.” By that, I mean for every story we hear or read, that story has it’s own history of how it was written.  This book tells a story that began before you were born. When did you start messing with it in a way that you thought you might write about it?
  3. I want to talk about the rules that govern the conventions of this text. I don’t mean rules I’d find in a grammar handbook. I mean that this book has it’s own rules for how it was written.  To mention a few examples, the sentences don’t start with capital letters, you don’t seem concerned about complete sentences, sometimes you attribute sources and sometimes you don’t, and there’s a lot of play with margins.  I’m guessing you tinkered with that a lot.  The book doesn’t have chapters. Some pages just have one little black and white picture.  There’s heavy use of italics in places. Can you tell me about how you arrived at the published form?
  4. At what points in writing this story did you think it wouldn’t get finished or published? How did you push through those points? What was driving you to get it done and out into publication?
  5. Can you talk to me about how research works in this book?  I’ll tell you what I think I’ve inferred and you can correct me and add to what I’ve said. I think I see excerpts from your mother’s journals, stories told to you by family members, books or articles you’ve read, and visits to places in upstate New York.  I’ll dig in on a couple of these after I hear your answer.
  6. What was the result of writing this book? To you? What do you know/understand that you didn’t understand before? Is your take on memoir different than it was before?  Did the writing of this cause you to remember anything new or see your own childhood in a different way?

The podcast was recorded with a Blue Snowball mic via Garage Band and a MacBook. You can read more about the book and its publisher, Spuyten Duyvil, here.  You can also listen to the podcast below or via iTunes by searching for Prof. Torg’s Read, Write, and Teach Digital Book Club. Please take time to “rate it.”  Link to iTunes and the podcast page here.

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Using Twitter in the Classroom to Facilitate Discussion

Using Twitter to Enhance Discussion in the Composition Classroom

I started with Twitter in the spring semester of 2012. I invited students to create accounts so that we could use them along with classroom discussion. We talked about privacy and potential problems with going public with writing, and I told the students that they might have a good reason for not wanting to use social media. One student shared a horrific story of Facebook identity theft and harassment. I also noted that I sometimes consider abandoning my online life, and that I’d enthusiastically support any student who wanted to skip the social media component of the class. We all, I thought, would benefit from some powerful voices warning about the dangers of being too digitally connected.

Twitter, NCTE, discussion, social media, pedagogy

Even though I was worried that there would be students who would see my offer as a way to get out of some of the classwork, all of my students signed up for Twitter.  I think there were less than five who already had an account.  One or two of the students had internships during which it was their primary job to Tweet and write Facebook posts.

Here was my starting place: in addition to doing our regular, go around the room, sharing to begin each class session, the students would also Tweet a highlight of what they planned to say.  So the idea was that students would listen to the one or two students who talked AND at the same time, Tweet comments to the class or as a “reply” to one particular student.  I thought of this as a kind of transparent note-taking process.  It used to be I’d write down golden lines of something someone said or jot down a question I had for later, but with Twitter, these notes could instantly be put up on the screen for everyone to see.  Maybe we’d see from the Tweets that many writers were gravitating toward the same lines from our reading, or that the writers in the class had some of the same sorts of questions. For example, if more than one student didn’t understand what I meant when I said student work should strive for “intellectual ambition,” perhaps our discussion could dig in on that feature of my expectations for their work.

In the coming blog posts, I’ll share how my idea worked, what I learned, and what I plan to do differently in the Fall of 2012. If you’ve used digital texts in the classroom, I hope you’ll join in the conversation.  Have you thought about how social media might impact classroom communities? Have you used Twitter in your classroom? If this article interested you, I hope you’ll consider signing up for periodic updates by typing your email in the upper left hand corner of this page.  Thanks!


A Letter to the Writers in my Summer Composition Course

Hello Everyone!

One of the biggest problems for students in my online classes is that they fail to READ CAREFULLY. The world bombards us with texts, and we are getting used to always skimming. I’m guilty too!  Take the time to read this letter, the syllabus, and watch the tutorial videos on the course website. None of the videos is over 10 minutes long.  That’s a much shorter lecture than many of you are used to. 🙂

I’m writing you because you are currently enrolled in the Summer I writing course I am teaching. In order to take this class, you will need a willingness to try new things, have regular access to the internet, and the desire to keep up with your work and stay in communication with me. This course will be over before you know it! Time flies in summer writing.

As you’ll soon see, I believe college is a place to try new things, to stretch yourself intellectually, and to get out of your comfort zone. Why just jump through the same old academic hoops you’ve been jumping through for years? You’ll do most of your work on a WordPress blog this semester, and I have some experiments planned when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. I realize some of you might have good reasons you object to social media, and if that’s you, just be in touch with me as the course moves along.

William Torgerson Writing Teaching College Composition

The Course Webpage / Click on Pic to Check it Out

You should know that just about everyone in the class thinks they aren’t a very good writer and is embarrassed to have others read their work. If that’s not you, please be sensitive to your classmates’ fears!  Once you start reading each other’s work, you’ll see we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  I really admire those of you who are writing in English as a second language. That is so much work, and I admire your intellectual ambition! Writing is something that happens in process.  We can write a bad first draft just to have something to work with and then we can go about making it better. You’ll be graded on keeping up with the work and the work you do to make the draft better as the class goes along.  You will not be graded on the quality of your first drafts.

I’m attaching the syllabus.  You can print it out and read over it, but it is also available online. I’ll give you the course website at the end of this email. The syllabus is going to look very long.  Don’t be afraid!  I think it is long because I explain what you need to do in great detail.  I hope you’ll find everything explained clearly.

This is important: Once you are on the course website, you will occasionally need a password.

(Password Information section removed)

I used to be a basketball coach, but I was converted to writer by some life experiences I had in the way of meeting people and reading texts that changed my life. Watch out. The reading and writing you do may change your life. Be on the lookout for that.

The course begins on Tuesday, May 29. I’ll respond to any email questions you have before then, but I’ll respond to your work the day or two after it is due. Like you, I’m pretty tired out from the year and getting this course ready for you all.

If any of you are in places where YouTube is blocked, you won’t be able to access some of the tutorial videos. If that’s the case, you and I can write back and forth if you have trouble setting up your work.

The course website is below.  I look forward to meeting you through the work of this course!