Their Books of Zen

I cannot help but use this post to brag on my students. I posted earlier in the year about the “Journal of Zen” assignment I’d given my first-year students this semester, and they SO delivered. The culmination of the semester was that they had to create a book to hold and express their understanding of “zen” in their own lives– what brought them peace, revelation, happiness.

We spent a couple of days learning to make books in class, and they then selected one or more items from their journals to use as the basis of their books. They put their books on display, with “artists’ statements,” today, and then we all voted on which books should be included in the campus exhibit, which will be on view in the student center outside the Julio Art Gallery from Wed., Apr. 27, through finals.

Their projects were thoughtful and inspiring. The juried selection process gave them an opportunity to see everyone’s work and give props to their classmates. They learned so much about themselves—and one another!

I hope that they will keep these books and look at them every so often to remind them of things that can be so easily forgotten in the hurry-scurry of everyday life.

teaching, writing

My book of Zen

It’s been a long time since I’ve last posted, but I have been writing–a lot. Over the past few months I presented a conference paper that I was asked to turn around immediately into an article (done as requested), wrote an academic book review, and written a piece of local history for the Bolton Hill Bulletin, my neighborhood newsletter (which I’m now co-editing).

I also witnessed, finally, the publication of an essay based on the blog posts I wrote last April and May in the weeks after the death of Freddie Gray around the corner from my house. I’m especially proud of this piece, “The Accidental Activist,” because it was solicited by The Concord Saunterer, a journal devoted to the study of Henry David Thoreau. I don’t study Thoreau—in fact, I engaged in a somewhat perverse resistance to Walden throughout my teens and twenties—so to be invited to comment on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in light of the events in Baltimore was gratifying, to say the least. (I also used the occasion to pay some penance for my earlier misdirected hostility toward Walden.)

And of course, I’ve been doing lots of other writing since returning to teaching after my year-long sabbatical. Handouts, emails, Tweets (see right), comments on student papers, lecture notes, committee reports and proposals: this is the kind of writing that sucks dry, drop by precious drop, anything that might have collected at the bottom of the creative well.

So it’s been hard to write here on the blog. None of this is a surprise, but it’s no less deflating.

But I have taken a cue from an assignment I developed for my first-year students this semester, and which, on a lark, I decided to do alongside them. The assignment is called “Your Book of Zen.” It’s inspired by the “moment of zen” with which Jon Stewart ended each episode of the Daily Show. All students need to do is to keep a bound journal and at the end of each day, briefly write about a “moment of zen” they experienced that day.

The moment of zen might be a moment of hilarity or intense irony, as it so often was on Stewart’s show, or simply a moment of balance. It might even be a moment of realization, an epiphany.

You might wonder why I have incorporated this assignment into a Gen Ed class called Understanding Literature, which, as its title implies, promises nothing but boredom. In it, students toil away learning the ins and outs of terms they thought they already knew “from high school,” as they like to say: metaphor, sonnet, symbol, synecdoche.

The scope and stated goals for the course already make it a tough sell. And the millenials I’m teaching, to tell the truth, make it harder. While they are very caring, and earnest, and kind, they are simply not very creative or prone to risk themselves, either psychologically or intellectually. Preserving their own safety, as so many have been talking about lately, is their modus operandi.

I am just as frustrated as any frustrated Gen Xer at the current state of things. But rather than throw triggers in their faces, or tell them to suck it up because life is hard, nasty, brutish, and short (and then you die), I wondered if there might be ways to lure millenials out of those “safe spaces” that have been built around them all their lives, to make risk-taking appealing rather than scary, something they might willingly choose to do, even want to do. I wondered if they would they risk their safety to experience the thrill of something new? To experience unexpected joy?

It seems to me that only by taking these sorts of risks can one actually understand literature. For that is what writers themselves do, and want their readers to understand: risk-taking. They risk their language, their emotions, their intellect: they flay themselves open and call upon the vultures to feed, and the next day, they do it all over again, all in the service of that moment of enlightenment, of realization, of coming-into-being, of zen.

(I am pretty sure I am totally misapplying the actual concept of zen here, but I hope you get what I mean.)

Maybe if they can see the zen in their own lives, my thinking goes, they’ll be able to see it in someone else’s writing or art. But mostly, I would just like for them to feel it for themselves. One of my favorite quotes from Walden, now that I’ve actually learned to appreciate it, is where Thoreau says he went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” I want them to taste that marrow and savor it.

So far, we have only been keeping our zen journals for a couple of weeks. Most of the students still seem pretty baffled by the whole idea. But some, I can see through my skimming of their entries, are starting to get it. A few of the more well-adjusted, mature students are really seeming to enjoy it.

Initially, I, too, was a bit baffled. Students asked me what to write if they did not have a moment of zen on a particular day (millennials love rules) and I just told them to write, “No zen.” I wrote that myself a couple of times in the first week. But we have discovered together that if you give yourself enough time to think, and actually notice what you are doing during the day, it’s not hard to find a moment of zen every day. It’s a good feeling to have.

If you pray regularly, meditate, or already keep a journal, I’m probably not telling you anything new. Indeed, my Book of Zen assignment is a stripped down and secularized version of the five-step reflection process developed by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and namesake of my university: the examen.

The beauty of the Book of Zen is that it really only takes about a minute or two—literally—every day. In only a few weeks, I now find it one or two of the best minutes of my day. It is so good to end the day knowing 1) that something cool did in fact happen, and 2) that I actually wrote something.

Perhaps it’s ok that I’ve let long-form blogging slip these days. I decided to set aside a couple of hours this morning to write this entry, just to keep a foot in the door here, but I do so in part because I know I will not be able to devote a couple of hours to the blog for the next few months. In the meantime, I may post a few Book of Zen entries.

For instance, as I put this post together, I watched the sun gradually illuminate the stand of trees outside our little house in West Virginia, against a startling blue sky that only appears in wintry places. Deciding to write this post instead of getting right to work gave me a chance to see it. That’s my moment of zen for today. I already know it.

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museums and archives, teaching

Field trip!

I took my Civil War in American Lit class to Frederick, MD, over the weekend, to visit the National Civil War Medicine Museum and to take a walking tour of local Civil War sites. Frederick, it turns out, was not only the town closest to Antietam, the battle that claimed the largest number of casualties in a single day– 20,000 killed, wounded, or missing–but also sits on what used to be two major crossroads: the old National Road running from Baltimore to points west, and what is now Court St., which ran from the Shenandoah Valley to Pennsylvania. Our wonderful tour guide, Betsy Estilow, Professor Emerita of Biology from Hood College (located in Frederick), joked that you knew it was summer in Frederick in the years 1860-1865 because there were either Union or Confederate troops– or both– in town.

Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.
Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.

As a major town (then having a population of about 8000) near the action, Frederick was picked to be a hospital site as early as 1861. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, nearly every single church, school, and government building in town was turned into makeshift surgeries, recovery wards, and morgues. One witness wrote that Frederick had been turned into “one vast hospital.” So it makes sense that the city is the site of the National Civil War Medicine Museum. The museum, incidentally, happens to be housed in one of the first embalming “studios.” (Modern embalming techniques were one by-product of the immense number of Civil War deaths and the need to transport bodies by horse and train all over the country.) Here’s a shot from the museum, showing Betsy in action:

Tour guide Betsy Estilon describes life-- and death-- in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the Museum's most important possessions.
Tour guide Betsy Estilow describes life– and death– in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the most important items in the museum’s collection.

It turns out that more than half of the deaths in the Civil War resulted from disease, not battlefield injuries. Many believe that the diseases that killed the most soldiers was gangrene that set in from badly done amputations and the inability to control infections (the use of antibiotics to fight infection did not begin until after the war).

However, Betsy insisted that the majority came from diseases contracted in camp. Of the 1500 days of the war, she said, only 60 actually involved battle. So being in camp, and later, in prison, with poor sanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and what she called “immunologically naive” soldiers (i.e., those who hadn’t been exposed to many diseases, having come from the wholesome, unpopulated regions west of the Eastern seaboard) resulted in the vast majority of sickness, and eventually, death. The war’s major killers? More than the minié ball or the cannon, it was dysentery, typhoid, malaria; even measles.

The museum was full of great artifacts. Here are a few (though I must admit I neglected to photograph some of the more gruesome artifacts, including the mummified human arm, the torture-devices-cum-dental tools, and various tourniquets, saws, and such):

Clara Barton's folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Clara Barton’s folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
We've seen these! Harper's Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp.
Harper’s Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp. Coincidentally, I had just brought my own personal copies of 1850s-era Harper’s Weekly to class to show them what Civil-War-era magazines looked like.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure is also from the war, and another prized possession in the museum's collection.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure was also used in the war (those are actual blood stains in the bottom right corner of the image), and another important piece in the museum’s collection.

Other fun facts of Civil War medicine:

  • The American Red Cross had its beginnings in the war.
  • So did the concept of ambulances to quickly transport people to hospitals.
  • 15% of those whose legs were amputated at the hip (thus severing several major veins and arteries) survived!
  • Nurses were so desperately needed that some prostitutes were given the choice between jail time/fines and hospital service.
  • Civil War hospitals had a mortality rate of only 8%, comparable to modern-day hospitals.

After lunch, Betsy and another docent, Mike Hoffman (who is a professor at the Army War College, served in the JAG, and also worked for the Red Cross for years) took us for a tour of downtown Frederick. Before we left, I graced the class with a very, ahem, dramatic reading of Frederick’s own claim to Civil War literature, a patriotic ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier titled “Barbara Freitchie.”

Professor Cole reading "Barbara Freitchie" and enthralling the class.
Professor Cole enthralling students with her performance of “Barbara Freitchie.” Photo by Jessica Ciampa (Thanks, Jessica!)

In the poem, the 90-something Barbara Freitchie, a staunch Unionist, refuses to be daunted by Confederates who keep taking down her flag. A real woman named Barbara Freitchie lived about 3 blocks from where we were standing, but apparently was probably not the woman who actually kept putting up the Union flag when the Confederates tried to take it down. Whittier, it seems, decided to conflate the real defender of the flag and a well-known local character. So it is Barbara who lives on.

Here are some other shots from the walking tour:

City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857).
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857). (Also brother-in-law to Frederick’s better-known hometown boy, Francis Scott Key. Who owned slaves. Do they tell you that when you learn about “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school?)
A plaque commemmorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.
A plaque commemorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.

It was a very full day. But full in a good way. I got to know the students better, and they got to walk the streets traversed by Grant, Lee, and Jackson, as well as the thousands of soldiers and civilians caught up in the war who are the main subject of our course. That alone made it worth the trip– but what really made it special was that we all got to see how the town has lived with the war ever since.

While the town is full of monuments, museums, and markers, what was really striking to me was how invisible much of the history was. Without Betsy to show us sites and explain what happened, we would have just walked by. Thank goodness for Betsy, and all the public historians out there!



It’s been a tough couple of weeks. I remember that it was hard to come back from sabbatical the last time I had one 7 years ago. I tried to get all my ducks in a row before the semester started and to do lots of deep breathing to help ease the transition back to the whirlwind of the semester. But the first few weeks were, nevertheless, a solid wallop to the head.

I don’t remember being so damn busy all the time. But those who know me well attest to the fact that my “busy-ness” doesn’t seem much different from how things usually seem to be in my corner of the gym. Everything is going fine, but I’m really tired. Over the past week, I was either teaching or in meetings on campus every day, getting up at 5:30 or so on teaching days to do the prep that I couldn’t do the day before, & staying up to answer email & hit “like” buttons on FB before hitting the sack somewhere between 11 and midnight.

Today, on a Saturday, I had to help lead a field trip for first-year students I’ll be teaching in the spring. I was not excited about the prospect of having to be at school, again, at 9:30 am to lead a group of grumpy, sleepy first-year students on a 2-mile walk through north Baltimore neighborhoods most of them couldn’t care less about.

But it ended up being fun. And interesting. And I was reminded that I really love being around these young people.

Our “urban hike” first took us through Guilford, the swanky neighborhood that lies immediately south of Loyola’s campus, sandwiched between Loyola and Johns Hopkins’ north Baltimore campus. I often drive through this neighborhood, probably a couple times every week, but have never walked it. I was amazed to find that there were enormous estates– gated, meticulously landscaped mansions–that I had driven by multiple times each week that I’d never noticed before. They were set that far back from the road. And this is a neigborhood that’s nestled in the middle of the city!

I always knew you had to get out of your car to appreciate urban areas, but was reminded that this is true for non-urban places as well.

Sherwood Gardens is a 6-acre park sitting smack in the middle of the Guilford neighborhood. Even though it is only 3 blocks from campus, I have never visited this place in my 15 years teaching at Loyola. Shame on me! It’s supposed to be most beautiful in spring, when the 80,000 (yes, that’s 4 zeroes) tulips planted by the neighborhood every year burst into bloom. (The neighborhood website has pictures of the show.) But it was plenty beautiful today. I will have to come back here when I have a few hours to kill on campus. Can’t imagine a better place to get some reading– or grading– done.

Dahlias blooming today in Sherwood Gardens.
Dahlias blooming today in Sherwood Gardens.
Sherwood Gardens, Baltimore, MD.
Sherwood Gardens, Baltimore, MD.

It’s a beautiful neighborhood. But it is also a troubling one. My co-leader on the trip, computer science prof Dawn Lawrie, is also my teaching partner in the Messina program, which has pairs of profs both teach and advise a group of first-year students over their first two semesters at Loyola. Before we embarked on our hike, she showed our students a map showing Baltimore’s de facto, neighborhood-by-neighborhood segregation correlated to housing prices, and today she explained that neighborhoods like Guilford actively excluded non-Christians and non-whites from Guilford through discriminatory lending practices and real estate covenants. She also pointed out how Guilford made many of their streets one-way– all streets leading out of, not into, the neighborhood.

On our walk, we saw one street that used to connect to York Road, a major north-south thoroughfare in Baltimore (and a dividing line between “white/rich” and “black/poor”) neighborhoods. The street has been turned into a dead end, with about 10 feet of “sidewalk”between the end of the street and York Road. I wish I’d thought to take a picture of this, but you’ll have to satisfy yourself with this Google Maps view:

York Rd. doesn't look like a major thoroughfare here (it's the street running from left to right beyond those brick columns), but trust me, it is.
York Rd. doesn’t look like a major thoroughfare here (it’s the street running from left to right beyond those brick columns), but trust me, it is.

I thought it was especially appropriate that the neighborhood had erected brick columns on either side of the dead end to frame a false entranceway into the neighborhood (This is an entrance! But you cannot come in! Gracious Southern hospitality epitomized.)

We then walked down York Rd., which turns into Greenmount Avenue, a street known for crime and drug activity as you keep going south toward downtown. We turned off before that, though, in the Waverly neighborhood. This was our destination: the Saturday farmer’s market, which runs year-round, rain or shine.

I did not take any pictures of the market today– too caught up with talking with Dawn and the students to adequately document the goings-on– but these images I slurped off the web are pretty consistent with what it looked like today:

15-09 waverly1

Most of the students didn’t buy anything. I heard later that some headed straight for Chipotle a few blocks away. But, whatever. My market bag was full of good things: maifun mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, some luscious peaches, green beans, pattypan squash, fuzzy little okra.

Dawn had arranged for our students to get transit cards, and we’d informed them how to take the city bus back to campus. At the bus stop, I encountered a couple of my students. These two let me take their picture:

My students Ashley & Jacqueline, waiting near JHU for the #11 MTA bus back to Loyola.
My students Ashley & Jacqueline, waiting near JHU for the #11 MTA bus back to Loyola.

The free Collegetown Shuttle showed up before the city bus, and we decided free was best. But we got on the wrong bus!

Before we knew it, we were careening east, instead of north. I talked to the bus driver and found that the particular bus we’d gotten on did not actually go to Loyola. Whoops! But I’d discovered our error in time. (Professor or savior? You pick.) We got off at Morgan State U and waited just a few minutes for the city bus that dropped us off right in front of the Loyola science building, where we’d started our hike this morning. (Whew! I’ve never seen Baltimore transit work so efficiently, but I didn’t say anything to the students. They’ll realize I’m no savior soon enough.)

It was fun talking to the students and getting to know them a little better. Dawn is teaching them all about robotics this semester, and I’ll be teaching them about how to analyze literature in the spring. I began the day dreading having to go to work, but left campus excited about having these kids in class next semester. Which, I suppose, is why we do things like these Saturday field trips at Loyola.

But I did reward myself for working on a Saturday. Instead of working this afternoon like I’d planned, I went shopping. For work shoes, but for shoes, nevertheless. I bought three pairs. I really need all of them, yes I do.


Loyola Magazine piece on “Book Places” exhibit

A former student, Brigid Darragh (who incidentally took an earlier version of the Novel in America course that produced the current exhibit), is now the editor of Loyola Magazine, and wrote up this nice piece on the Book Places exhibit that’s currently showing in the Loyola-Notre Dame Library. (Link to the online version of the exhibit here or using links at right.)


“Book Places” exhibit opens!

Atomic Books
Atomic Books, Baltimore

Here’s the online version of an exhibit that my students and I worked on last semester–the “analog” version is currently running at the Loyola-Notre Dame Library in Baltimore until 2/5/14. The theme of the exhibit is to examine places that foster books and the exchange of ideas. Take a look, leave a comment, spread the word! And if you’re in Baltimore (or if you’re an expatriate), add your own Baltimore bookstore story to the interactive map accessible through the Bookstores page. This exhibit is the “sequel” to the EN 367 (different course number, same course) exhibit titled “The City That Reads” that my students put together in 2009. Enjoy!

links, teaching

Some cool “book places”

One of my students sent me these links, one showing a 15th-century cathedral turned into a bookstore, and another about an abandoned Texas Walmart turned into a public library: a brilliant juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, meeting with books in the middle.

We are creating an exhibit in my “Novels in America” class looking at places that foster book- (especially novel-) reading (it’s tentatively called “Book Places: Reading and Selling Books Before Amazon.com,” and will be up in the Loyola library in early 2014). Wish we had places like this here in Bmore! Well, here’s one: the Baltimore Book Thing :-), where all the books are free–take as many as you like!