by Christian Butterfield
Humanity is defined by its philosophical inquiry. We obsess ourselves over the big questions: What’s the difference between good and evil? How does one obtain proof of any existence beyond the self? And, at 9:30 A.M. on the second floor of Jody Richards Hall, eight emerging writers posed the most notable question of all, the one most philosophers do not even dare consider: would you rather fight to the death with a shark or an alligator?
The responses varied. Sharks were more passive, but alligators were less deadly when provoked. Abby, a former zookeeper, mentioned her consistent encounters with a gruff alligator named Debra. Finn, a budding pizza chef, reasoned that anyone who didn’t fight an alligator was likely deranged. We opened our first day of class with a session of interviews that posed important questions like this. Good writers are good listeners and good empathizers, so our class began via inquiry and the presentation of our findings. We learned each other’s pronouns, taste in music, least favorite colors, and, yes, our preferences between different types of fights between murderous animals.
What stood out to me about this interview process was how dynamic the classroom became. The exercise was designed to be a one-to-one discovery and presentation; the peer-audience was never told to interject with additional questions or discussion points. But in the intimate atmosphere of our roundtable, the interview turned into a generative conversation. Niles and Mason sparked a conversation about Rick Riordan’s canon of literature; Kay informed the class that she had a disconcerting amount of Aries on her astrological birthchart.
It was impressive to see this group of strangers transform our classroom space into a lively and intimate atmosphere within the first hours of instruction. This trend continued as the day continued. As morning stretched into afternoon, we introduced our principal class project (the Multi Genre Portfolio, a collection of five works of separate genres all focusing on a specific point of inquiry), talked about what it means to read like a writer, and played a few games of Mao along the way (I’m still trying to figure out what “ouchie-wouchie” means). By the time we reached our afternoon quick-write, using a photograph of a elderly lady and a reindeer in a tram together, we became a supportive group rather than a disparate array of writers.
As I write this TA post, I am sitting in a tight circle in the lounge of Jody Richards Hall. We are reading The Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher. Grace and Cathleen poke fun at the term “pop-a-wheelie in your taste buds” and Sydney asks the group for thoughts on her “life inventory.” It’s our first discussion on the work; we mull over the importance of journaling and observation. “Dancing Queen” by ABBA plays softly in the background at their request. Together, we are a collaborative, a united front.
So to answer the pivotal question: No, I don’t think a single human could fight off a shark or an alligator. Both are too strong, too fast. And we are not athletes — there’s a running joke that we aren’t STEM students solely because we don’t want to walk uphill to Ogden College. But could a group of eight young authors fight off a shark or an alligator? I’m not sure. But I’m confident we could craft a pretty darn good piece of writing about it.