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Visiting Writer Series demystifies the lives of writers

By Steve Hansen

When Rick Barot and Jason Skipper joined the English Department in 2005, they were charged with more than teaching classes. They were asked to start a writer's series - from scratch.

With such short notice, the two didn't have much to work with - let alone a large budget - so Barot, a poet, and Skipper, a fiction writer, called in a few favors. They soon lined up a series of six writers.

The 2005-06 series turned out to be quite a success. Each event drew about 100 people per reading, with 20 to 30 students during an informal Q&A event. This year, with a couple of readings already completed, the series seems to be building momentum.

Typically, the event takes place in two parts, with a question-and-answer session in the afternoon, and a more structured reading in the evening. The general public is invited to both events, and both are free. Students tend to fill out the first session, which allows for a lot of informal give-and-take.

That was certainly the case when another one of those favors opened the 2006-07 series: Justin Tussing, a fiction writer whom Barot knew from his days at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. The easy rapport between Barot and Tussing translated to accessible information for the students, especially at the Q&A session.

"The kids ask terrific questions, both personal and professional," said Barot. The personal, in particular, really gets to the vocational aspect of the series that Barot and Skipper are striving for - the opportunity to show students what, exactly, life looks like when it is lived with a passion for writing.

"There is this notion of vocation here," said Barot of PLU. "And this was one aspect of vocation we wanted to highlight. To give possible answers to students who wonder, 'People who work in these fields - what are they like?'"

Doug Oakman, dean of Humanities agreed. "Writing is one of the core capacities developed through a PLU education," he said. "One of the ways students learn to write well is to have good models to follow."

Such passion is not limited to students who wish to pursue a career in fiction writing or poetry. Appealing to a broad spectrum of students is exactly what Barot and Skipper are looking to achieve with the series. Barot recalls a reading last year by poet Jonathan Johnson, who writes about building a log cabin in the northern Idaho wilderness in his memoir, "Hannah and the Mountain." A student from Alaska came to hear Johnson even though, according to Barot, he had no interest in poetry. "He was just interested in hearing about what the guy did to make the cabin," he said.

These are the types of connections Barot hopes the series continues to make. As evidence of that support, several different stakeholders are assisting in the series, including the provost's office, residential life office and PLU's Master of Fine Arts program.

Barot talks about wanting to attract both younger and older writers to PLU, some established, some up-and-coming. One special event took place this October when author Stephen Kuusisto visited campus in combination with the celebration honoring the memory of noted PLU author and educator Jack Cady. On April 17, Tess Gallagher will visit campus, a poet whom Barot says, "has influenced just about every young poet today."

With efforts like this, the series will continue to grow. And it certainly has its fans. "The Writers Series extends the strengths of PLU's excellent faculty through regular opportunities to hear accomplished writers of national eminence," said Oakman. "Having such cocurricular events, carefully organized by PLU faculty, furthers long-term goals to sustain academic excellence. The Division of Humanities is extremely proud to be associated with such a high-quality series."


Patricia O'Connell Killen, acting provost and professor of religion, received the American Academy of Religion's 2006 Excellence in Teaching award at its annual meeting in November in Washington, D.C.

Voice instructor Marlette Buchanan has been appointed to the first ever national nominations review committee for gospel/contemporary Christian music for the Recording Academy, presenter of the Grammys.

English professor Charles Bergman spent the fall 2006 semester in Ecuador as a Fulbright Senior Scholar, lecturing and conducting research at the Universidad San Franscisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador. Bergman lectured on the emergence of an ecological consciousness in Latin American literature.

Colleen Hacker, assistant dean and professor in the School of Physical Education, delivered the 2006 Bevan Lecture on Psychology and Public Policy at the American Psychological Foundation's annual convention in New Orleans in mid-August.

The lectureship is awarded only once per year in the United States.

Dramatic images of geysers, thermal pools, mud pots and other geological features characterize Duncan Foley's most recent book, "Yellowstone's Geysers: The Story Behind the Scenery." Foley is a professor of geosciences, and wrote and photographed the book over the course of countless trips to Yellowstone National Park as an instructor for the Yellowstone Institute.

The Fulbright Scholar Program recently selected Dave McNabb, visiting professor of marketing in the School of Business, as a Fulbright Senior Specialist Roster Candidate.

Neal Sobania, executive director of the Wang Center for International Programs and professor of history, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) in October. The lifetime achievement award is bestowed annually through a highly-competitive selection process and is one of the few awards given in the study abroad field.



© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2006

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