Saturday, February 27, 2010

Spread the Word: I'm Comin' Ouuuuu-t!

Not as a debutante or a gay man. Nor as Beyonce in Tokyo!

(Although I would appreciate it if y'all'd be a little more into the call and response thing than the apparently mostly-non-Japanese people in her audience that night.) So if you had to put a label on it, I guess I'd say I'm coming out as a campus governance leader. No, not as step x in some kind of rehab program (for "hearing the sound of your own voice" addiction? to make a public apology to those I've hurt?). How and to what end? Well, read on.

I don't need to tell my handful of regular readers that first as Vice-Chair of the SUNY Fredonia University Senate last academic year and then as Chair this one, I've lost the time, inclination, and motivation to do much academic blogging here at Citizen of Somewhere Else. It's been as obvious as the numbers in my archives to the right. Frankly, communicating with my fellow officers of the Senate, with administrative leaders, with leaders of the local union chapter, and with everyone else on my campus, not to mention fellow campus governance leaders and others in the state-wide University Faculty Senate, has taken up so much of my thought, time, and effort over the past academic year and a half tht I haven't been able to stay awake enough hours in the day to cram in some academic blogging at the end of it. Well, my term runs out June 30th, I've got a pretty good handle on the job by now, and to accomplish some of my remaining goals, I'm going to need to use the bully pulpit more on my campus and take to teh intertubes here at CitizenSE to (hopefully) reach wider audiences.

And that's where you come in. I need you to spread the word: I'll be talking here about various issues that we've been wrestling with at Fredonia and in SUNY since I've been on my campus's Senate Executive Committee. What kinds of issues? I don't want to limit myself in advance, because the biggest thing I've learned is how to roll with surprises, but certainly among them will be the value of effective governance, conflicting theories of governance and what's at stake in them, the meaning(s) of consultation, the financing of public higher education.... The list goes on and the actual blogging will be a lot more interesting than that list makes it sound.

While blogging, I'm not going to talk personalities or play trivial academic politics. And while I'll be commenting on the news here at CitizenSE, one of my goals will be more ambitious: I'm going to be trying to make some news via CitizenSE. First on the agenda is the coming NYS budget apocalypse and political meltdown, Governor Paterson's Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, the battle over it between the Chancellor of the State University of NY Nancy Zimpher and the President of United University Professions Phil Smith, their courtship of statewide and campus Senates in SUNY, and What This All Means and What's At Stake In It.

So get your #2 pencils out, put on your thinking caps, and getttttt rea-dy to commmmmennnnnnnnnntttttttttttttt!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hesse, Allende, Haiti: Student Reflections on Natural Disaster and Narrative

I asked my students in this semester's ENGL 209 course, Powers of Narrative, to write a response essay featuring their reflections on the following questions:

How did Allende's and Hesse's very different portrayals of responses to a massive natural disaster affect you as you read them? How would you compare your reactions to these fictional accounts with your initial and evolving responses to the news coming out of Haiti since the massive earthquake of January 12th? What implications in your answers would you highlight for fellow Fredonia students?

Here are some of their writings.


Student 1: Distance Can Divide Us

The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th brought the Haitian people the greatest reason for sorrow that I will never know. Unimaginable hardships and losses have flooded the lives of the victims of this natural disaster. I cannot know the pain these people are feeling and I am at a loss for any way I could contribute to ease their suffering. They are hundreds of miles away, a distance that leaves me feeling helpless, and at times makes the event seem almost fictitious, as if it happened eons ago on a planet on the opposite edge of the universe. I share these feelings with the author of “And of Clay We Are Created”, and the protagonist in “Strange News From Another Planet”.

Isabel Allende, the writer and narrator of the story “And of Clay We Are Created” watches the aftermath of a disaster through media coverage, the same way I have witnessed the tragedies and chaos amongst the rubble of Port-Au-Prince. Much like myself, she has moments of overwhelming sympathy, and moments where the disaster seemed very distant. She describes this range of emotions as she observes her friend, who is reporting at the site of a deadly volcano eruption. Allende writes, “At times I would be overcome with compassion and burst out crying; at other times, I was so drained I felt as if I were staring through a telescope at the light of a star dead for a million years.” These words capture the back and forth between empathy and detachment which I believe many people experience while following reports on the results of a disaster.

A similar sense of detachment is expressed by the boy in “Strange News From Another Planet”, written by Herman Hesse. In the midst of his own town’s disaster, the boy reflects on the old legends he was told as a child. The legends told of great evils, far worse than anything the boy or his people had ever experienced in their time. He recalls feelings of horror and fear when he heard about all the terrible things that used to take place in the world. However, he also remembers having a “pleasant feeling of comfort”, because all of those sorrows and turmoil were “infinitely far away from him”. He never worried that he would witness terrible things because trouble always seemed very distant from his life.

Ultimately, it is normal for people to feel removed from another group’s tragedy. Distance can make it hard to feel sympathy for people whom you do not know and will never meet. The most important contribution that can be made to Haiti is spreading the sentiment that distance cannot overcome our sense of empathy for what has happened there.


Student 2

Disasters have a deep emotional impact that follows the initial physical damage seen in the soulless bodies of the departed and the empty ruins in which men once stood. Grief, fear, and helplessness can all envelope the consciousness of those left behind, especially to those who have lost everything they once took for granted. Others though may see things in a different perspective, possibly have the optimism to notice the beauty in the cycle of life and death. This was the difference in my reaction between the two short stories, “And of Clay Are We Created” by Isabel Allende and “Strange News from Another Planet” by Hermann Hesse. My reaction to these written examples of disaster also mirror my reaction to the devastation caused by a 7.0 earthquake that shook the Haitian landscape on January 12, 2010.

Allende’s short story portrayed a newscaster whose responsibility was to report on the devastation caused by a natural disaster that left many dead and one little girl trapped chest-deep in a pit of mud and debris. This little girl would become the newscaster’s focus, fighting for her life as if it were his own, and in the process fighting his own demons. Through reading this struggle I felt a deep fear of my own mortality and wondered if I was like the girl; helpless to control my own fate. This was also like some of the questions I asked following the devastation in Haiti. It’s estimated 170,000 souls were lost in the quake, and I could not help ask but why the Haitians. They themselves have seen much grief in their lives between their poverty and their unstable homeland. Many innocent people died, all with their own faults but most of them undeserving of their fate. Disasters such as that show the fragility of life, a fact the newscaster must have seen as that powerless young girl succumbed to her own mortality and passed away.

Hesse’s short story on the other hand brought different emotions. In the story, a province in a world without hatred, murder or jealousy, would be shook by an earthquake which would kill numerous of their inhabitants. The people of this planet do not fear death but embrace it, seeing the beauty in the cycle of life and death, only asking that their dead be adorned with flowers to they may be reborn into another existence. It is the task of one young man to request enough flowers for this mass burial from his king, but this journey would take him to another planet filled with the evils that his planet is without. This journey is like that of our own where we go through life with the faint idea of these evil but will never know them until we encounter them ourselves. It is not to say we are not so ignorant as to believe hatred, murder and jealousy do not occur but rather we believe that is not what makes up our lives. We all have the innate hope for the miracle of a paradise that this young man lives in. This was seen in the short story when the other-worldly king spoke to the young man of his own hopes that one day his planet will see this peace. When I read this I had a great yearning for this existence also, I want a world where war doesn’t occur and death is not to be feared but rather is celebrated for its role in life since without death life would have no meaning. The Haitian disaster was exactly that, a disaster, but it also showed in many ways the ability for men to put aside war and greed and show the inner good we all possess. Great humanitarian efforts are being launched by nations and people who all want to help their fellow human being. For every man, woman and child who have passed there have been numerous more acts of random kindness that preserve those left behind. I feel as though disasters such as these bring together people who would otherwise fight about their politics and beliefs but above all naturally have the unexplainable need to help those that need it the most. It was the fate of the unlucky Haitians who were caught in this quake to die, a process that life allows.

Those who witness these disasters are reminded of their own mortality and also may be given the inexplicable need to save those who need it. In the face of great catastrophe men will show their true characters and these events have shown that we are not necessarily evil people; we only need to understand the gravity of our existence and the futility of hatred, murder and jealousy. None of those things will save us from death, nothing will save us from death, we can only improve our lives by ridding ourselves from what we see as “human nature.” The nature of man is not to do evil, it is to seek happiness, to help those who are in need, a path which will bring happiness more than hatred, murder or jealousy will ever bring.


Student 3

Natural disasters, like recently with Haiti, have happened within the contexts and worlds of literature and stories throughout time. In both the short stories titled "And of Clay Are We Created" and "Strange News from Another Planet" as a reader there were new conclusions to draw about what society can learn from natural disasters. Furthermore, the stories helped to draw some more insightful conclusions about the disaster of Haiti that I witnessed on the news, twitter accounts, etc. since the natural disaster occurred on January 12, 2010.

While reading these stories I did envision along with the description in the stories the pictures of Haiti that were seen on the newsfeeds, twitter accounts, online, etc. However, the stories helped me to better understand some key concepts on how to get over the grief I saw with Haiti. When just seeing the news footage of a natural disaster, a person only feels grief. However, reading a short story or a narrative form about the event can help a person learn a lesson, a way to become stronger from a disastrous event. When watching Haiti news footage, I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know how to learn from the disaster, or what there was to learn from it. Reading these short stories, like the messenger’s wisdom about the King or the bravery and acceptance that was seen in the victim Azucena when she faced death, are lessons about strength that can be extracted from disaster. These lessons can teach people to become stronger people after reading.

Even though these stories are fictional, I now look back on the newsfeed and see the faces and think about the lives they had that just shattered when the disaster struck in Haiti, and how they didn’t give up even after their houses were destroyed, their family members hurt or killed, and how their country became uncertain and stricken of resources. I also learned that being vulnerable sometimes as sad and scary as those moments are, is the best way to become strong. In the story "And of Clay Are We Created" there is a important line that reads, “I knew somehow that during the night his defenses had crumbled and he had given in to grief: finally he was vulnerable.” This quote seems so important because the character that was stuck in the rubble and mud, Azucena, was a character of strength not because she acted invincible or possessed superhero qualities and miraculously survived, but because she accepted her life, gave in to her grief and let go. The photographer in the story after sitting with her for her last night truly changes his mindset after her story. He is no longer interested in becoming a person on the sidelines, just capturing the moments. This is an important life lesson for anyone; to become a person that values life, even in times of disaster, stress or loss. This idea seems to be further explained in the other short story, when the King who has seen plenty of war and destruction tells the messenger

People are indeed killed here…but we consider it the worst of crimes. Only in wars are people permitted to kill…still, you’d be mistaken if you believed that my people die easily. You just have to look into the faces of our dead, and you can see that they have difficulty dying. They die hard and unwillingly.

The King in this excerpt can help to emphasize that people can gain wisdom on how important and valuable life is when they are faced and confront death and loss every day, like the soldiers in war on the “alternate planet.”

The most important point that was further drawn to my attention as a reader after reading the short stories while was that like the bird told the messenger, there can always be much worse. It seems important to remember this when students stress out about trivial, smaller, matters like a test or a breakup. Instead, people should try to remember what truly is important: living life purposefully even in the darkest moments.


Student 4: Worlds Full of Tragedy

The two short stories, "And of Clay Are We Created," by Isabel Allende, and "Strange News From Another Planet," by Hermann Hesse, depict the effects of natural disasters in very distinctive ways. Not so different from these effects are the ones recently shown of the earthquake that destroyed Haiti. By each portraying the responses to devastating natural disasters as they did, Allende and Hesse, have influenced my thoughts on how people, like the ones in Haiti, react after their whole worlds have crumbled.

In Allende’s story, "And of Clay Are We Created," the idea of natural disaster is portrayed in a very dark and touching way. Allende does this, by the way in which she describes her characters. From the first sentences, “They discovered the girl’s head protruding from the mudpit, eyes wide open, calling soundlessly. She had a first communion name, Azucena Lily” (30). Allende introduces the readers’ into a world of horror and disbelief. The picture of a young girl’s head sticking straight up from the ground while her body is trapped below her, immediately brought darkness into the mood of the story. In addition, the statement of the girl’s communion name represents the innocence of the victims involved in this tragedy. By bringing this darkness and innocence into the story so early on, Allende provokes a feeling of sadness and sympathy towards the young girl.

Along with this, Allende portrays the harshness of death. To do this she states, “In that vast cemetery where the odor of death was already attracting vultures from far away, and where the weeping of orphans and wails of the injured filled the air, the little girl obstinately clinging to life became the symbol of the tragedy” (30-31). Allende affected my feelings towards disaster by getting my sympathy. She allowed me to make connections with the victims and develop attachments to both the young girl and the reporter, and trigger feelings of deep compassion for these people.

Different from Allende’s heart wrenching account of the aftermath of disaster, is Hermann Hesse’s "Strange News From Another Planet." Though he also describes the affects of a natural disaster, he does so in lighter way. Hesse introduces us to a place, where even though death is a bad thing, it can also be celebrated. Hesse’s affect on myself was less personal and moving. Though he did trigger feelings of sadness and compassion for the victims of the tragedy, he did so in a much happier way. He left me with a feeling of thankfulness for what I have and the idea that things could be much worse.

Although these two stories are not true accounts of disasters that really took place, they have affected me in a similar way to the news of the earthquake that took place in Haiti earlier this year. After a horrible disaster, the people of Haiti have been left with nothing. No clean water, food, shelter or bedding. In a lot of cases, many children were left without family members to take care of them and are newly orphans. Other than the physical injuries that people have acquired, many are left emotionally scarred after experiencing the loss of just about everything they worked and lived for.

The reaction that I had towards this news was similar to the ways in which Allende and Hesse’s stories influenced me. Similar to my reactions towards Allende’s "And of Clay Are We Created," I felt an immediate sense of sympathy and compassion towards the people of Haiti. I cannot imagine the pain they must be enduring after losing loved ones and still trying to live their lives one day after the next. I also felt sadness come over me after I saw the innocent people in the pictures, of the aftermath of Haiti. These same feelings of sadness were evoked after reading Allende’s story. I also feel that the reactions that I had towards Hesse’s story, were shared reactions towards Haiti. After hearing about all of the horrible things that these people have had happen to them all so suddenly, makes me feel a sense of gratefulness for what I have. I feel for these people, and at the same time I am appreciative that I still have my parents, and a shelter I can call my home.

After reading both short stories, and after being able to connect those reactions to ones towards the news of Haiti, I have a greater understanding and compassion for what the victims of Haiti are going through. It is important to recognize, that even though this disaster did not happen to us, it should and has affected us all. It may be easy to look the other way and pretend that it didn’t happen, but it did. And if we can only look harder and try to help the victims of this tragedy then we can grow stronger as individuals and as a human race.


Student 5: The Human Element of a Natural Disaster

A natural disaster provides an opportunity to unite humanity. It can strike anywhere, at anytime and to anyone. The earthquake which occurred on the island of Haiti and devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince is not that characteristically different from any other natural disaster, except in one critical aspect: the social and governmental structure of Haiti is in shambles. Haiti, already a third world nation, finds itself at a need for administrative control and global aid at this critical hour. Isabel Allende’s “And of Clay Are We Created” and Hermann Hesse’s “Strange News from Another Planet” show in radically different ways the affects natural disasters have on communities. From both of these short stories, the reader can achieve a better understanding of the human element to natural disaster.

Allende’s story “And of Clay Are We Created” presents an almost mirror picture to the events occurring in Haiti. In it there is talk of media coverage, aid response, and volunteer efforts. While reading this story, the thing that affected me the most profoundly wasn’t the magnitude of the disaster described. Instead it was how the severity of the disaster is encompassed in the struggle of the little girl, Azucena. Allende states that journalist Rolf Carle “exhausted all the resources of his ingenuity to rescue her,” and in this I was able to see that his effort to save one person represents the world’s effort to rescue this community from tragedy (32). It was similar to watching correspondents from Haiti report on the efforts to rescue people from the rubble. However, in the case of Azucena, her eventual death represents the failure to provide timely aid. I was as angry when I read about the unnecessary death of Azucena, who could have been saved by the deliverance of a pump to drain the water from her muddy grave, as I was to read and hear about the death of those in Haiti that could have been saved if the modern world had acted with greater haste. When all of the debris and rubble is cleared in Haiti, there will surely be a rise in the death toll. Allende’s story also makes greater emotional ties with its audience, another similarity to my evolving response to the plight of Haiti. When the people portrayed on television become not just people in our news feed, but instead flesh and blood beings with needs and feelings like ourselves, is the only point in our mental process of tragedy where we can make a difference. My reaction to Azurena in “And of Clay Are We Created” was similar to the reaction I had when seeing the suffering of the people in Haiti: the Haitians are part of our human family and they need our aid.

Hesse’s story “Strange News from Another Planet” affected me differently when I first finished reading it. The story itself doesn’t seem as focused on the nature of the disaster, as it does on the nature of the response of those who were affected by it, particularly the boy who journeys to find flowers for his community’s burial rituals. I made fewer personal connects with the disaster in this story and the earthquake in Haiti. However, I can see how someone who was affected personally by the earthquake in Haiti could find similarities with their own feelings from this reading. The one idea that I did take away from Hesse’s writing was that no matter how bad natural disaster is it can never compare to the devastating effects of war. In war, humanity battles among one another; a natural disaster has the affect of bring humans from different cultures together to begin healing and rebuilding. At the end of the story, when flowers have been brought from all throughout the country to aid in burying the dead, the young man is left to contemplate what he saw on the foreign planet, where war devastated the land in a similar way natural disaster had ravaged his own. The young man states that “a shadow of sadness has remained within me, and a cool wind from that other planet continues to blow upon me, right into the midst of the happiness of my life” (145). In his distress, I can see similarities with the response that I had to how the people of Haiti were suffering. Although the effects of natural disaster can be devastating and cannot be viewed as positive, the response that it produces from the world community is something positive. People helping others are something that is seen in the continued relief of Haiti. However, in the case of war, relief is much slower to come and arrives in less quantity.

There are a few ideas that I would want Fredonia students to take away from this. The first is the importance of forming human bonds with those affected by disaster and do what is within their power to aid those in need. As we see in the Allende reading, and more so in the Haitian disaster, prompt responses to disaster are crucial to saving lives. Another point that I would highlight for student recognition would be that while there aren’t many positives to disaster, people coming to the aid of other can always be viewed as a triumph of humanity at work. This is portrayed well in the Hesse reading, as well as the evidence we can see in a comparison of the earthquake in Haiti versus what would be seen in war. Seeing the small bit of positive in something so seemingly negative is important.

Fictional and non-fictional depictions of natural disasters can shake the core of human society. However, they also provide an opportunity for the generosity and kindness of humanity to shine through. In the stories of Allende and Hesse, as well as the tragedy currently taking place in Haiti, we can see elements of fear, loss, love, perseverance and hope in the actions of ordinary people. These are qualities that every SUNY Fredonia student can sympathize with, which helps them gain a better since of understanding of the level of tragedy that can strike the human community.