WeTeach_CS Grant Announcement

Dr. Aimee Roundtree

Associate Professor Dr. Aimee Kendall Roundtree has won a teaching grant from WeTeach_CS to fund a $100,000 project, “Coding Across the Disciplines,” that will teach computer programming skills to middle and high school teachers from all disciplines. Along with Dr. Hunter Close (Physics), Dr. Kristina Collins (Education), Dr. Grayson Lawrence (Art and Design), and Dr. Ziliang Zong (Computer Science), the project aims to expose teachers to new programming concepts and computational thinking skills, that, as Dr. Roundtree says, will enable “Texas high school students to have points of contact with programming in addition to computer science classes.”

More than ever in the digital age, coding and programming are integral to art, design, digital media, applied and theoretical sciences, and many other disciplines. However, according to WeTeach_CS “only 2% of Texas high school graduates have taken a computer science class, despite the fact that computer skills are integral to most industries and fields.” The goal of “Coding Across the Disciplines” is to provide teachers with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) lesson plans and teaching materials for immediate integration of programming lessons into their own curricula and classrooms.

Dr. Roundtree will serve as project manager, and in addition to teaching, designing and distributing materials, and many other responsibilities, she will be gathering usability feedback for an app that Dr. Close and his graduate students designed. The app teaches Python, a general-purpose programming language that focuses on clear and easy-to-read codes. By using Block.ly and Trinket, according to Dr. Roundtree, “the app will use blocks as visual code editors to teach students fundamental programming skills like variables, logical expressions, loops, as well as create visual simulations by assembling and linking blocks in proper order.” Like any graphic user interface, the code is written underneath as the blocks are being assembled. The app resembles Scratch or Code.org, two other very simple visual code editors used to teach kids programming.

The program will run from January 16 to August 15, 2017. In that time, the teachers will complete 60 contact hours of training—36 offered by WeTeach, EdX, and other vendors, and 24 hours at multidisciplinary workshops that Texas State University will host, tentatively scheduled for mid-June. Further, the project will offer teachers flexibility to manage their learning schedules and will allow course substitutions through places like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. Additionally, Dr. Roundtree and her team “hope to recruit teachers in underserved, impoverished, and minority student populations in communities in Hays, Guadalupe, Caldwell, Comal, and other counties along the I35 corridor.”

As a technical and scientific communication researcher, Dr. Roundtree looks forward to observing “how scientific visuals are learned and taught, as well as how professional teachers from different disciplines acquire technical expertise.” This will help to sharpen her own coding skills for teaching Digital Media and Theory courses at Texas State.

The department invites fellow Texas State faculty and staff to spread the word about this exciting opportunity to the middle and high school teachers and administrators in their own networks. Please contact Dr. Roundtree at akr@txstate.edu for more information.

Department News: Two Lecturers on Their First Books

Into That Good Night by Levis Keltner

In Keltner’s book, a group of junior-high misfits set out to find a girl who died in the woods, a setting not far from the mysterious forest of Keltner’s own childhood. The kids are united by their fascination with the girl who died and by collectively facing the horror of death. They embark on a coming-of-age journey full of love, murder, and moral dilemmas. Into That Good Night is set for release in early 2018 through Skyhorse Publishing.

Cities of Men by William Jensen

Jensen’s novel, released in May 2017 by Turner Publishing, follows a twelve-year-old boy and his father who find that the boy’s mother has gone missing. Their family dynamic is far from healthy, but together they take a road trip through Southwest America and Mexico to find the woman with whom they both share a connection.

Unlike most careers, writers face rejection regularly. Accepting this reality can lead to vulnerability, frustration, and the temptation to quit, but William Jensen and Levis Keltner—lecturers in the English Department with first books out or forthcoming this year—prove, as Jensen says, that being a writer “really is about patience and hard work.”

Both writers attribute their success to the determination and the discipline required of writers working to bring their first books into the world. William Jensen’s novel, Cities of Men, took five years of waking up in the morning, following the twists and turns of the novel’s plot and focusing on the littlest details. Testing his resolve, Keltner faced a disheartening first year in the MFA program. His big idea for a book was getting negative feedback, and he had reached a point of personal crisis. He spent the following summer writing about anything and everything, trying to break out of his literary rut. The following semester, Keltner became close with Tim O’Brien after taking his fiction workshop. O’Brien liked Keltner’s new work and gave him the encouragement he needed to move forward. “Without taking that class,” Keltner admits, “I don’t know if I would’ve stuck with [writing].” This positive reinforcement helped him finish his first novel, Into That Good Night, set for release in 2018.

While these authors share the same commitment to their work, they took a different path to reach this point in their careers. Before he decided to pursue writing, Jensen worked many odd jobs, including landscaping and dishwashing. Like Keltner, Jensen came to Texas State with a desire to study with Tim O’Brien, the National Book Award winner of The Things They Carried. O’Brien, Jensen says, demonstrated that “showing up is ninety percent of success.” In addition to simply showing up, O’Brien also confirmed that writers already have a wealth of material from their backgrounds to draw on for their stories. Having spent his life between California, Arizona, and Texas, Jensen has an intimate relationship with the Southwest, and he uses this familiarity with the landscape as the backdrop for Cities of Men. “I knew how certain winds would feel, and how certain trees would smell,” Jensen says of his choice for setting. The non-traditional route that Jensen took to arrive at where he is today likely gave him the wisdom and resilience that writers require.

Unlike Jensen, Keltner has always thought of himself as an artist. Before coming to Texas State, he played in a band for many years. “My songs were always very long,” Keltner jokes, admitting that this was his first sign that he was meant to be a novelist. After an onslaught of band drama, Keltner decided his best option was to pursue writing, and the only looking back he does is to gather material. Keltner grew up in a forest preserve on the outskirts of Chicago, and rumors circulated among his peers about the creatures who might live there. This mysterious backdrop eventually became the setting for his novel.

At a certain point, the hardworking and determined author must commit to a completely different job—submitting their work. For Jensen and Keltner, this involved draft upon draft of query letters to agents, those gatekeepers of the publishing world who understand not only the artist but the publishing landscape as well. Instead of waking up to work on their books, they were practicing how to sell their ideas.

In spite of their commitment to seeing their work published, these writers are most concerned with the act of writing itself. Both noted the joy felt when the writing was going well. “I couldn’t live without that feeling,” Keltner says. Such moments of creation keep writers from succumbing to the fear of being rejected. While that fear never goes away, the allure of bringing their first books into the world has allowed these writers to push past the hard facts of publishing and to forge ahead with their artistic visions. Only one thing can explain why someone would voluntarily go through all of this, as Keltner remarks of this phenomenon: “You have to be a little bit crazy.”

by Sammi Yarto, English major

Department News: Jim Shepard Interview

Courtesy of Texas State University, August 2017

 

Impossible Facts: How the Holocaust Makes Children of Us All, an Interview with Jim Shepard, winner of the Clark Fiction Prize

Jim Shepard

In the spring of 1940, Aron, the narrator of this year’s inaugural winner of the Clark Fiction Prize, The Book of Aron, watches as a wall rises around the center of Warsaw, around his neighborhood, and around those he loves most. Even though Aron is only nine when the Nazis arrive, through his clear-eyed, succinct story, readers are swept into the undercurrents of ghetto survival: theft, smuggling, and ultimately, informing. Inherent in this quest for survival is the question Aron must face: What is he willing to do to survive?

With so much suffering, it would be easy for a writer to gloss over reality with facts and figures too mind-boggling to fathom, but Jim Shepard depicts both the daily and the historic brutalities with such precision that readers feel, if not complicit, than a part of the brutality humans commit against one another. While the next horror is never farther than a page turn, humor runs throughout the narrative, providing the residents, and readers, a way—the only way it seems—to cope with the darkness. As Janusz Korczak, the historic doctor who in the novel provides refuge for Aron, says, “The Jews manage to adjust to every situation but never know how good they [have] it, like the man who complained he had no golden shoes but didn’t realize that he was soon to lose his legs.” Through Korczak, Aron can see the hope of transformation, for the day when the walls no longer imprison him, but Aron must decide if he is worthy of being saved.

Kindly, Jim Shepard agreed to answer some questions about Aron, the ghetto, and his writing techniques prior to his campus visit.

Texas State: In other interviews, you’ve said part of the inspiration for this book came from hearing the sound of your child’s voice. Could you elaborate on this? What other sources of inspiration helped you work through the challenges of writing this book?

Jim Shepard: I think I’m always channeling children’s voices once I decide to write from the point of view of a child. I’ve always been interested in catastrophe, as well as children, and the issue of ethical passivity, and it occurred to me when reengaging with the story of Janusz Korczak that the Holocaust brings those three subjects together under maximum pressure, in dramatic terms. I’d always resisted writing about Great Men or Women, mostly because I tend towards the worm’s eye view of history, but also because I’m less interested in hagiography and more in those stories that dismantle our sense of ourselves. But it occurred to me, when reconsidering Korczak’s story, that many of the poor children in his orphanage hated being there, even as they recognized that it had saved them, however temporarily. And they must have felt terribly conflicted about that. Imagine being the boy who for whatever reason made a saint’s life harder. (My mother would say: Yes. Imagine that.) That sense of knowing how you should behave and being unable to do it—that sense of feeling that you’re not adequately appreciating what you have been given, and in so doing you’re making it harder for the people you love and admire: that was a conflict I could relate to.

The Book of Aron

TS: Many of your short stories and novels, including The Book of Aron, are told in first-person point-of-view. What did you find most challenging in writing from Aron’s point-of-view?

JS: Well, getting his voice right, of course. I started researching by reading first-person accounts of Polish childhoods in the 1920s and 30s—and there were lots of those—with a special attentiveness to the voices. I’m sure the project felt like such an act of hubris that I’d already decided to use the first person in order to go at the problem of authority head-on, as it were, and I told myself that if I couldn’t begin to master my protagonist’s voice to my own satisfaction, then I couldn’t adequately imagine his inner life, either, in which case I should just drop the whole thing. I also wanted to, by limiting myself to a single first-person sensibility, evoke the way in which the dread of what’s coming is always there in the reader’s mind but is opaque to those in the historical moment. One of the pleasures that fiction can deliver is, of course, the god-like ability to flit from sensibility to sensibility—to penetrate everyone’s consciousness, and to know with certainty what everyone is thinking: a mobility and omniscience that we never in our regular lives get to experience. Anotherpleasure that fiction can offer, though, is the opportunity to inhabit a single, other sensibility, as limited (or perhaps even more limited) than our own, as fully as possible. Both pleasures are exercises in the empathetic imagination, but for me the latter option nearly always seems, when done well, more bracingly revelatory as a crash course in empathy. And I tend to believe that most of us need as bracingly revelatory a crash course in empathy as we can get.

TS: There are many gruesome events that happen in this novel, yet it never feels like a simple catalogue of suffering, primarily because of Aron’s idiosyncrasies in telling his story. Can you discuss how you were able to achieve this balance of conveying the horrors, yet still making them human?

JS: There’s always the tightrope walk when writing about suffering—and especially extreme and/or mass suffering—between sanitizing events and sensationalizing them. Usually it’s a matter of recognizing how much agony does need to be conveyed, and at the same time recognizing when any more seems gratuitous. Which is of course easier said than done. But there’s also the importance of the understanding that for those living through such times, the suffering becomes quotidian – and as such, the quotidian can compete with it. So that someone’s soup becomes as notable an event as a beating.

TS: In other interviews, you’ve spoken about your obsession with the issue of agency in fiction: “with that portion of responsibility that we have for what happens to us.” Could you discuss how responsibility and agency work in the novel?

JS: Aristotle’s notion of literature involved flaws of character that produced behavior for which the character then had to take some sort of responsibility, and I believe that literary conflict is about agency; it’s about those decisions we make once we’re faced with whatever the world has unleashed upon us. So that: the Germans invading your country is hugely dramatic, but not in itself a conflict, in that sense. What you do about that invasion is.

TS: One of the major conflicts of the book seems to be this question: What are we willing to do to survive (The Jewish Police, Aron and his band of smugglers, Korzac’s unwillingness at the end)? As Lejkin, a member of the Judenrat, tells Aron, “If the [Germans] have enough time, they’ll kill us all. If not, some can be saved;” of course, being saved here means turning on your neighbors. Can you discuss this aspect of the book?

JS: See my previous answer. One of the reasons we’re drawn to such stories, despite their unpleasantness, is our fascination with how human beings operate when faced with such impossible choices. If it meant saving your brother, would you answer an interrogator honestly about your neighbor? And at what point would you cease cooperating with an oppressive regime?

TS: In the opening lines of the book, Aron says his father wanted to name him, “What Have You Done,” because Aron is a troublemaker who “only looks out for himself”; yet Aron’s mother sees him as the readers see him, as conflicted, as someone who’s maybe 51 percent good and 49 percent bad. But even still, Aron’s mother implores him to “remain a decent human being.” In the face of so much atrocity, is decency merely an illusion?

JS: No, decency is most certainly not just an illusion. In the face of the most extreme circumstances, it just rarely survives as an untainted category.

TS: One of the elements that I found so striking about this novel was its depiction of the daily horrors of living in the ghetto (the constant battle against lice, the waves of typhus, the number of people living in one small apartment, etc.) Why did you chose to incorporate these details, while many other writers have foregone these details in the face of the larger, more terrifying horrors of this period of history?

JS: I was struck during my engagement with all those journals and diaries by how much, again, the quotidian dominated the thinking of those trapped in the Ghetto, as in: let’s just get through today, and let tomorrow worry about itself. That mindset meant that there was less thinking about the Big Picture and more about the smaller and more concrete aspects of experience.

TS: Throughout much of the book, adults are peripheral—their overheard conversations, the brothers and the father; not quite as much the mother, but even with her, there is some psychological distance—so why do you think Aron becomes so close to Dr. Korczak? Put another way, what is so attracting about a figure like Korczak?

JS: Korczak’s legendary capacity to hang on to so much of his decency, and his kindness, and his selflessness, made him a magnet for all of those children like my narrator who were pained at what they’d already done to survive, and who longed to imagine that they could still renovate themselves for the better.

TS: In many places, there are threads of dark humor, especially from Korczak. Did you worry about trying to accomplish this in a book about the Holocaust? How were you able to incorporate this into the novel?

JS: I didn’t worry about the appropriateness of the relationship between dark humor and the Holocaust, since I wasn’t adding the dark humor, as if in a recipe; I was coming across it again and again in the primary documents. It’s clear from the historical record that those who didn’t give up or become entirely unfeeling had to employ humor in some way to cope with what they understood to be the grotesque absurdity of their situation.

TS: Some might argue that stories about the Holocaust are unethical because they involve an appropriation of others’ suffering. Did you feel concern about this while you were writing, and, if so, how were you able to overcome this?

JS: Of course that was a huge concern of mine, when approaching a subject like this. And it’s been a commonplace claim about the relationship between the Holocaust and the arts that the enormity of the suffering and horror defeats any attempt at adequate representation. But books like Jona Oberski’s Childhood reminded me that by making a child our guide to such infernal regions, a work could enact any number of ways in which the impossible facts of the Holocaust make children of us all. And maybe such a work could also then evoke both the necessity and the inherent impossibility of our hope of adequately testifying about anyone else’s pain.

TS: Lastly, could you share some thoughts on what it means to win the inaugural Clark Fiction prize?

JS: I’m one of those people who believes that the proper response to winning any award is humility, given how much good fortune has to come together to make that happen. And humility seems to be even more in order when the subject of your project involves extremities of suffering, and on top of that, extremities of suffering that have taken place at an enormous remove from your own experience. So: it’s a great honor, and one for which I’m hugely grateful.