A busy week, what with the rap battles and all...

Rapping on the quad005When I told people that Chris and I (fresh from watching the movie Eight Mile) were moving to Ann Arbor to participate in rap battles, I was, of course, joking. Imagine my surprise, then, on Friday afternoon when we walked across the Diag and came upon a group of young guys of varying ethnic heritage, huddled in a tight group, rapping away freestyle at one another.

Not twenty feet away, another - albeit smaller - group of guys postured their way around a dance mat before busting out some break dance moves. It's only a matter of time, I imagine, before Chris dives right in and starts rapping about stock fraud then spinning on his head. I'll have my camera ready, I assure you.

It has been another crazy week and I am beginning to suspect such is the pace of the Fellowship life here. There's simply so much to do that down time is a rarity. I’ll fill you in on the past week sparing you many, many details… A public editor, a Turkish feast

As I've mentioned before, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are dedicated to Fellowship events. This past Tuesday, Dan Okrent – former public editor/ombudsman – from the New York Times came to share war stories about being a critic of his own paper. Interesting stuff and on par with a theme that would run through the week's speakers - that the media needs to be actively critical of itself.

Afterwards, we began what will be a series of Tuesday night presentations and dinners. Each of the Fellows is paired with a partner and two of them give presentations about their lives and their work and two others prepare dinner for the group – which is a daunting 30-odd folk once spouses are added into the mix.

This Tuesday, the presenters were Vindu Goel, business editor of the San Jose Mercury News and Gail Gibson, a national correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. Gail’s focus of study while she’s here is free speech in wartime America, and I'm hoping I'll get a chance to sit down with her and learn a bit more about it.

Dinner was prepared by Semiha Ozturk Pisirici, her husband Sadat and Tony Norman. Tony’s a columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and I actually met him briefly a few years ago when picking up an award at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention in Pittsburgh. Semiha is from Turkey, where she works for CNN Turk and under her and Sadat’s guidance, Tony helped serve up a magnificent Turkish feast.

We all crammed at a makeshift table that stretched from the Wallace House dining room well out into the hallway and on into the living room, passing platter after platter of delicious and quite healthful Turkish fare. We ate a salad with cucumber and feta cheese, dolma, hummus, flavorful rice, tomatoes stuffed with orzo, lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce and much, much more. Needless to say, the bar has been raised for the next gang!

Hangin’ on the 826 tip

Wednesday I began my tutoring with 826 Michigan, a mere hour of time spent helping a young girl with her handwriting before attending a tutor training session. (Yes, it seems a bit backward, but in the non-profit world, you go where the need is.) We had a wonderful trainer whose name, of course, escapes me. She teaches teachers how to teach writing and her approach and suggestions were fascinating and I realized this game of encouraging young people to write is far more complex than I had prepared myself for.

In particular, I was interested to learn that it is generally considered “best practice” in teaching – I believe she said from grades 6-12 – to step away from grammar and punctuation and encourage instead the flow of ideas, encourage creativity. That’s a change of pace for me, to say the least, as things were taught quite differently when I grew up – and today I’m a firm believer that words are powerful tools we must learn to use properly. How we say it is every bit as important as what we say. I’ll admit it will be a challenge for me to take this approach. I’m being challenged? What the hell? What’s next – growth?

We, the media

This past Thursday was the annual Graham Hovey Lecture (named after the journalist and former Fellowship program director), wherein a former Fellow of some accomplishment is invited back to address the current Fellowship class and members of the academic community.

The event was held in the back garden of the Wallace House, where a pitched tent saved us from being pelted by acorns from the trees above. All of the Fellows showed up in their Sunday best and let me tell you...not only does this bunch clean up mighty good, they make a movingly impressive group when they stand and, one after another, explain their backgrounds and the focus of their time here. I had a real sense at that moment, perhaps more so than at any other since our arrival, that we are at a magnificent juncture in our lives, truly blessed to be part of this group and at the beginning of a grand adventure. (Chris had the honor of being the only fellow whose topic received whoops and applause. Must be a mighty anti-white collar crime crowd....)

This year’s lecturer was Dan Gillmor, author of We, the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. He spoke to us quite briefly on a very large topic – the future of journalism and the role of “citizen journalists” in reshaping the way we participate in the news-gathering cycle. He opened a lot of doors of thought, drawing on the recent citizen participation in the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. His notion, as I understand it, is that the blogosphere has created an entirely new playing field in which journalism is becoming a conversation rather than a one-way lecture from traditional news media.

Gillmor believes that regular Joes need to be part of the news, play an invested and interactive role and that internet technology (blogs, podcasts, wikkis, etc.) is going to make that a reality – either with or without the participation of the current major news outlets. In fact, there was something fitting about the way the sky grew darker as Gillmor spoke of what he called the “democratization of information,” while ominous thunderheads rumbled their warning the distance. “This is beginning either with our without us,” he said.

I think what Gillmor’s talking about, although I confess to not having read his book yet, is creating a virtual town square, a community conversation whereby we are no longer passive consumers of the media. There is too much to this topic, both in theory and potential, to even begin to sum it up here but I left the lecture with a vaguely dissatisfied itch inside me – so many more questions. I’m still unclear how the logistics would work and how, realistically, one maintains the integrity of information from sources. If everyone can post news, how do you ensure that these “citizen journalists” aren’t mere plants, essentially lobbying viewpoints on behalf of businesses, politicians and other parties? What becomes of the journalist in this scenario and, on a broader scale, what becomes of the craft of writing itself? So many questions – which is, I suppose, the beginning of any good conversation.

An early start to the weekend

Friday, Chris and I attended a session at the Sweetland Writing Center Conference I wrote about before and then played hooky from the afternoon sessions. It was a gorgeous day and we walked across campus to some areas I hadn’t explored yet. It seems that there are very few classes in session on Fridays and parts of campus seem virtually abandoned. Chris showed me the business school where he’s taking night classes and where, apparently, the young men cut loose on Fridays by pairing a French Blue shirt with their dark slacks for a wacky change of pace. We didn’t get that memo.

We also walked through the quad at the Law School, which was absolutely idyllic, like every Oxford-ian courtyard you see in American movies, complete with the stone residence buildings, their wood-framed windows flung wide open overlooking lush green grass where the occasional student lazed reading.

Yesterday, we hit the Farmer’s Market again, loading up on sweet corn, home grown grape tomatoes and giant quarts of Michigan raspberries bleeding sweet scarlet juice onto our plastic bags. We ran some errands and the day got completely away from us. It happens so easily here and I don’t know where the time goes. I’ve little productive to show for it.

This morning, it was my intention to rise early with Chris and catch another session at the Sweetland Writing Center Conference on Imitation and Plagiarism. Our very own Charles Eisendrath was chairing a discussion with Macarena Hernandez . Now a columnist at the Dallas Morning News, Macarena was at the San Antonio Express-News when she discovered that Jayson Blair had plagiarized her work. She was a key player in blowing the lid off Blair’s legacy of rampant journalistic ifringement.

Again, it was my intention to attend this morning’s session but I had a bit of a rough night last night, haunted by the upcoming anniversary of my mother’s death and feeling distraught over the past and the present. When Chris woke me at 7:30 to rise for the session, I think we both knew I needed the rest more than the intrigue. Thus, he attended the session alone and came back to pick me up for the now-weekly Sunday brunches we have at the Wallace House.

The good news was that Charles had brought Macarena to the house and she joined us for brunch, another wonderful hodge podge affair including huevos rancheros, cinnamon rolls, roasted potatoes and much more. (This is fast becoming one of my favorite times of the week - the participants vary and it's a great chance to get to know different people in a more relaxed environment.) It was nice to chat with her a little, not just about the obvious Jayson Blair stuff but also about her current work in Dallas.

Now we’re back at the house and a thunderstorm has moved in – perhaps a side-effect of the much-ballyhooed Hurricane Rita, which has failed to deliver the level of destruction anticipated along the already-damaged Gulf Coast. The house is being pelted with horizontal rain in alarming quantities, trees bending under the weight. It’s a perfect Sunday, a lazy Sunday. I’m going to put on the tea kettle and take some time to sit and knit, something I’ve had little time for since we arrived. And then, once I’m good and calm, we’ll head back out to tonight’s David Lynch lecture on transcendental meditation which should prove, if nothing else, interesting.

But doesn’t everything here?