“So Much Depends on a Red Wheelbarrow”: an Interview with Dr. Kristin Wilson

We had the pleasure of spending some time with Dr. Kristin Wilson earlier this week, chatting with her about aspects of pleasure that she has used in teaching her classes in composition and literature.  It seemed that no matter where the discussion roamed, we kept circling back to poetry.  Here are some excerpts:

pleasureteam: How did you help your students to feel a part of the group?

KW: There’s this poem, “My Papa’s Waltz“, and you can either read the poem as a father abusing his young child, or as a father dancing with his young child. We would read it silently, and then they would write to some little prompts on a piece of paper.  Then they would pass and read everybody’s prompts….nobody could talk yet.  People would be quite surprised, either way, whichever way they read it, that the others read it the other way.  Then they would discuss the poetry, the way they read it.

pleasureteam: What about sensory pleasure? Because you don’t teach a hands-on kind of class? You can’t touch it, taste it, smell it?

KW: No, but when you teach writing, especially, you always say ‘sight, touch, sound, taste, smell.’ So whatever you’re writing, you want to engage the senses.  Even if you’re writing an argumentation paper, you want to be thinking about the senses. If you’re writing an essay, how much better is it if you engage the senses?  In my poetry class, there’s a museum in downtown St. Louis, City Museum, where all the exhibits are made of trash.  We would visit that museum, and we would find places where people would sit and take a look at what’s there….it’s almost like a kids’ jungle gym.  The poetry students would go out there and write poems based on what they saw.  It was surprising what they came up with, based on what they saw.

pleasureteam: You said that they were surprised about what other members saw in “Papa’s Waltz.”  Do they find anything surprising about your teaching style?  For instance, some people have a bias against poetry.

KW: If you’re teaching a literature class, people always have biases against poetry.  Some people think all poetry should rhyme.  But what they’re most convinced of is that they won’t like it.  So at the end of the semester if you can convince them that they actually do like poetry, well, you’ve done your job. (Laughs.)

pleasureteam:  The surprise is often that they like what you’re serving.

KW: We think that it’s about acquiring knowledge or comprehension or something like that.  But really the whole work of education is convincing people about things…being persuasive. The other thing that they’re often surprised about in literature is how complex it is.  Some students, especially in an introductory lit course, have just never read anything very complex.  So if you read an extended metaphor, they’re just surprised about how complex language can be…even language that they’re familiar with, like the lyrics to a song.  They’re surprised how complex those lyrics are, because they’ve never really analyzed or thought about them.

When I taught composition class, which was my bread-and-butter class for years, I would tell the students to write about something they need to write about.  What is it you need to write about, you need to capture this for all time? Lots of people who didn’t think they could write were surprised when they wrote something really well, when they wrote what they were thinking or believing.

pleasureteam: How do you persuade your students that what they are learning is valuable?

KW: In the lit classes, they always come in thinking it’s not valuable. For literature, in particular, they have to see themselves in a character. As soon as they find a character that they can identify with, it’s all over…you’ve got ’em hooked.

pleasureteam: In a typical community college class, where we have such a diverse population, how do you choose something that appeals to everyone?

KW: Lots of people would disagree with me…LOTS of people…but I think it’s poetry.  Poetry is little tiny ideas that everybody feels.  So “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens.” So then everybody says, “I don’t know what that means.”

And then you get underneath it, and you start talking about it, and you talk about William Carlos Williams approach to poetry, which is “no ideas but in things, no ideas but in things.”  And it starts to resonate  for absolutely everyone, that approach to poetry, and they focus on the red wheelbarrow…’Can you see the red wheelbarrow? Can you see the white chickens?’

So I use poetry in developmental reading really quite a lot because I think it brings people together. I love teaching developmental reading…I don’t get to do it much anymore…but I always bring in lyrics, usually one country music song and one rap, different genres, so you get everybody.

pleasureteam: So what kind of value is it? Is it the value of understanding, or the value of seeing themselves as part of mankind with a capital “M”? What is the value that they take away from that experience?

KW: I think it’s seeing the self in language that’s produced by other. So then language takes on significance because I can find myself in this other language, and you just complicate the language.  And the very act of reading, even if you’re sitting alone, becomes a community act.

pleasureteam note: Dr. Wilson is Chief Academic Officer at Hopkinsville Community College. Our conversation with her touched on several other aspects of pleasure in learning which will be featured in a later post.

Click here to see:  William Carlos Williams reads “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Image of wheelbarrows By Jared and Corin (originally posted to Flickr as 2001080355_G) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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