Writing Wherever You Are
In early summer of 2019, eight Beloit College students and eight bicycles were enrolled in a Summer Block course titled “Writing on Two Wheels,” led by Professor of English Chuck Lewis. The cyclists were among a handful of students remaining on or near Beloit’s summertime campus. With Lewis, they spent their class time exploring the city of Beloit and the surrounding landscape, sometimes biking 20 miles in a day.
When they weren’t riding, they journaled to explore the connection between the use of their bodies and their minds.
Creative writing major Isabella Valdez’20, who has fond memories of that course, checked her email this spring and noticed the opportunity to take another Lewis-led Summer Block, this time taught remotely and appropriately titled “Writing Wherever You Are.” When she saw that the class was offered for free, Valdez said recently, “I was like, ‘hell yeah.’”
Beloit’s Weissberg Program in Human Rights and Social Justice and the new Career Channels program covered the cost of the course for all students who enrolled.
The “Writing Wherever You Are” Block finished its seven-week run in July. It was taught in two virtual sections of 10 students each: one by Chuck Lewis, and one by Michael Dango, an assistant professor of English.
Dango’s section focused on writing about social justice, while Lewis’s assignments were completely open-ended—although current events found their way into his students’ writing.
Some students thought, “‘Oh my god, it’s Covid 24/7,’” Lewis says, and chose to use their writing to escape from the news, while others embraced the opportunity to process their reactions to world events through their assignments. He said that regardless of content, some students immediately asked if they could write creative pieces, while others’ responses to his prompts felt more like journal entries, and still others submitted photography and other visual art.
Creative writing and education major Finn Brandt’22 was one of the students Lewis allowed to submit visual responses to some of his writing prompts. One week, Brandt turned in a series of black-and-white photographs of his mother’s childhood doll going through the daily motions of his own socially distanced life at home. He’d been thinking about pop culture’s love for stories about haunted dolls, and realized that in quarantine, the notion of a “consciousness trapped in a form that’s unable to move” had begun “really resonating” with him.
One of Brandt’s favorite prompts asked students to detail a recent moment from their own lives, leaving out references to world events and to examine how those situations outside the scene still influenced those within it. Similarly, Dango asked students to pick a day in their lives from the past few months and describe it, then research what happened that day in national and local news as well as in arts and culture. He wanted them to understand how their individual experiences aligned with the world’s recent events.
Transitioning from discussing Covid-19 to the Black Lives Matter protests that began in May was not difficult, Dango says. “The pandemic was always, in a way, about race,” he says, noting how essential worker status, access to healthcare, and physical environment have influenced which communities are most heavily impacted by the virus. “It was already really difficult to think of the pandemic apart from structures of racialization.”
Dango thinks that part of the course’s popularity lies in how “writing becomes an opportunity to slow down the world a little bit” and take stock of it.
The classes were also an opportunity to test out an asynchronous teaching approach in case Beloit had to continue distance learning due to Covid-19—and, pandemic or no pandemic, to challenge the academic convention that learning is best done at a predetermined time and in a packed classroom, says Lewis. He also notes that students were taking the class for credit rather than a letter grade, which encouraged them to focus on creating art that felt true to their experiences, rather than something they thought would get a good grade.
Lewis has been teaching “writing in context” courses like this since 2013, when he offered a Summer Block called “Writing and Yoga” in collaboration with a Writing Center tutor who was also a yoga instructor. Lewis has taken writing students to Cusco, Peru, and to Florence, Italy, in past summers, but he’s found that a bike tour of the college’s own city can be just as enriching.
“A lot of people spend four years in Beloit and have never been anywhere in the community, besides Walmart and downtown,” he says.
Ultimately, Lewis says he aimed to identify each student’s goal for the class and work toward it no matter what else the summer of 2020 had in store.
“We’re meeting our students where they are; this time, quite literally,” he says.
Clare Eigenbrode’20 is a writer and a member of AmeriCorps working with City Year in the Milwaukee Public Schools. She is a former co-editor-in-chief of the Round Table student newspaper.
Excerpted Selections of Student Writing From “Writing Wherever You Are”
It’s different. The weight of air, the texture of bed sheets, the weight of my body pressing down the mattress — they are all different. Yet I recognize the pattern on my pillowcase, floral design on a turquoise background, a bit faded due to repeated washing. I let my feet touch the floor, fuzzy, stable, holding me up from gravity’s unceasing pull. The possibility of falling is extremely low. My feet find my slippers. They are content now.
There’s not much light in the room. I can only see a roundish square, the result of light’s failed attempt to penetrate the curtain. I open the curtain, blinded by the lights rushing in with no patience at all. The smell of the room is stiff. Thousands of particles, flowing in the air. They’ve been accumulating themselves all night long, inside of this room, completely sealed by a willing prisoner. They can’t gather anymore. The prisoner has decided to break the perfect seal. I open up the window, all the way to the end of the rail. The almost solid touch of air is ripped apart, alongside the silence that has been dominant in this room for so long.
I can now say it’s morning.
Here, the days lounge languid. A college student stranded back on my childhood isle for this final summer before my semester-late graduation; I am here, live in Franklin Park, Illinois, wilting and waiting and wading through the foaming, salty slosh of my family while twisty earwigs and feathery centipedes creep around my calloused heels.
• • •
My mom thinks we should eat all meals together; my dad thinks he should DIY the house restoration over the course of several years; my brother thinks he should move out; my sister thinks she should move out; my other sister has moved out; I think we should sit in a row on the front lawn, the sky a gentle and silky lavender, while our foundationally unsound house cracks and crumbles beneath the blaze we together ignited.
Stoicism is what I learned from being in quarantine. After contracting the virus in a tiny pocket of the world known as Estonia I spent 14 days in a dorm shared by three other European students. They didn’t want to talk and food was delivered to our door by the Estonian Health Authority. They asked me to wear a mask whenever I left my room and entered our shared kitchen even though all three tested positive for the virus. They asked me to keep the toilet clean, twice, and they sheepishly avoided conversation at every turn. With isolation I turned to stoicism. I reflected happily on my life and who I allowed to enter it this year. Who were the people I knew? Who were truly my friends and cared about me? Who was trying to be my friend now and why? I oriented my body toward exercise, then pruned off the people I let wear me down, and I engaged deeply and honestly with those I knew loved me as much as I loved them.