Misunderstanding “Darwinists”

An op-ed in The Guardian reminded me once again of the dangers of dichotomous thinking–and of unfairly accusing others of such an approach to seeing the world: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/08/attack-darwin-evolution-science-an-wilson

Written by Jules Howard, the argument is that while many in the public realm remain engaged in a debate over evolution and creationism (parents, pastors and their congregations, school boards, and so on), most scientists are less interested in choosing a side. Rather, they are engaged in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge about  the complexities of life–how it began, how it has and hasn’t changed, the ways in which it continues to amaze and surprise. Of lesser concern is promoting or defending Darwin, who was actually one of many scientists thinking and writing about evolution and natural selection in the mid-19th century.

One thing that I love about the academic life is being constantly reminded about how much I and other scholars DON’T KNOW. When you read and think and question and engage for a living there’s often little time (or interest, for that matter) in declaring that one idea is RIGHT and anything contrary to that idea is WRONG. Ideas are far too interesting and perspective-driven to waste time in either/or wars.

I’ve been teaching college students since my early 20s, and I know that the surest sign of success in the classroom is when my students leave dichotomous thinking at the door. Better yet, when they lose interest in reclaiming that kind of thinking as they leave my course. Life is so much more exciting when we dwell in the grey areas.



“Hey, Dr. Ryan!”

I had to laugh at a piece in today’s New York Times about the increasing informality of students’ emails and other communications with their professors: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/opinion/sunday/u-cant-talk-to-ur-professor-like-this.html?emc=edit_th_20170514&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

In recent years, I, too, have opened an email from a student and been stunned by the salutation: “Hey, Dr. Ryan!”

Just a few days ago, I received an email inquiring about the possibility of obtaining an internship from an English major I’ve never met. The message began, “Hi Cynthia!” Really?

Like the author of the NYT piece, I pride myself on creating a comfortable environment for my students. I do so because 1) I want students to feel at ease asking questions and confident in their ability to participate in the learning process, and 2) a laid-back style best matches my personality. That said, I’m sometimes thrown off by a student’s disregard for the role I play in the classroom and the work I put into getting there.




A celebration of writing

October 20 is National Day on Writing, a day committed to celebrating the power of writing in all its forms–both teaching and doing.

Members of the professional writing faculty, including Purdue alums Jaci Wells, Jeff Bacha, Bruce and me, along with our alum from Arizona, Chris Minnix, decided to set up a booth on the green and invite students to learn more about the day and our programs. We were a big hit!

Professional Writing Faculty: Bruce, Jaci, and Chris (standing); Jeff and me (sitting)

Professional Writing Faculty: Bruce, Jaci, and Chris (standing); Jeff and me (sitting)

To entice students to learn more about us, we set up a drawing for a $50 gift card from the campus bookstore. Students just had to write down their contact info and the best writing advice they’d ever been given. We ended up with more than 100 entries with some inspiring pieces of wisdom.

I made cookies and some of my mom’s special recipe party mix to pass out, too. The students loved it. Thanks, mom!

It was a great event, one we plan to build on next year. We’re hoping that more aspiring writers come our way after learning more about what we do and the many possibilities for those with writing chops.

Ignorance is bliss?

A story in today’s New York Times caught my eye: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html?emc=edit_th_20150824&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

The author claims that overstating the certainty of knowledge is a problem. When we convey the message that we know everything there is to know about just about anything–climate change, the common cold, characterization in Winnie the Pooh–we’re apt to 1) be wrong, and 2) ignore the questions yet to be asked and answers yet to be given. Curiosity, Jamie Homes claims, is fueled by uncertainty.

I run into the discussion of what scientific understandings are more and less certain every semester when I teach a writing class to college freshman enrolled in UAB’s Science and Technology Honors Program. While many students have learned to appreciate those ideas that are backed by stacks and stacks of evidence, fewer are eager to share the complexities that confound researchers.

It’s my task as a teacher to encourage students to view research gaps, questions, and puzzles as opportunities to keep on looking. As I tell my students, that’s where the fun lies.

Blogging in the Netherlands

This afternoon, I’ll be departing for two weeks in the Netherlands. Diane Tucker, who heads up the Science and Technology Honors Program at UAB, and I are co-leading a program focusing on the sustainability efforts in place in Holland–one of the most innovative and technologically sophisticated countries in the world. What’s the alternative, really, when much of your living space is technically below sea level?

Seventeen students are joining us for this adventure. They come from a variety of disciplines: engineering, anthropology, business, English, public health.

We’ve set up a blog to record our experiences: http://uabsustain.blogspot.com/

Amsterdam, here we come!

The Sunshine State

This past week, I traveled to the “sunshine state” to give an invited lecture and workshop at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The Writing and Rhetoric department was hosting its first annual symposium for undergraduate and graduate students in the program, and this year’s theme was “Engaging Your Worlds.” My task was to talk about the ways in which I have drawn on my identity as a breast cancer survivor and rhetorician to engage discourses of advocacy, science, and inequities in health care access and outcomes.

One point that I found myself coming back to again and again as I worked through my presentation and talked with attendees was the need to remain true to oneself. I encouraged the audience not to feel pressured to adopt positions or identities du jour when their personal strengths, interests, and backgrounds are powerful in themselves.

The example I drew on to support my advice was a familiar one from my writing–the disconnect I’ve experienced for more than two decades when the pink ribbon in all its cheeriness is presented as the default symbol of breast cancer. A pastel loop and the uplifting narrative it represents has never felt sufficient for portraying the range of emotions and struggles that we survivors endure. And I’ve said just that in many public venues.

My host at UCF, Blake Scott, a friend and fellow medical rhetorician, asked attendees to consider the kind of world they hoped to create through engagement. I hope that whatever their responses, they envision a world where they can speak freely and honestly.