By Richard E. Miller
It has been another exciting and productive semester for Rutgers English. But, even as I write this, I am keenly aware that it has been a calamitous year for the state, the nation, and the world. The tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed in New Orleans: these were the year’s headline-grabbing natural disasters. A catalogue of this year’s manmade disasters would be much longer.
I got a passing glimpse of just how devastating hurricanes can be when I visited Boca Raton to give a lecture at Florida Atlantic University this fall. I’d been invited by Barclay Barrios, a former graduate student and now the Director of the Writing Program at FAU, to speak about the value of the humanities in the twenty-first century. Barclay had warned me that Hurricane Wilma had wreaked havoc in southern Florida; even so, I wasn’t prepared for the damage I saw during the twenty- mile ride from the Fort Lauderdale airport to the university. The destruction wasn’t spectacular: there were no cars lodged in the sides of buildings, no iron spikes driven deep into the highway. The damage, rather, was consistent: everywhere you looked – and I mean everywhere – were toppled trees, downed power lines, roofs stripped bare, possessions from all over scattered here and there. And everywhere, crews were out patching things back together, getting the power back on, the water running, the phones up.
On the FAU campus, everyone was just returning to class and scrambling to recover from the shutdown of the university. A sense of urgency was palpable as the students and the teachers worked to recommence the educational process. It was as if the hurricane had made everyone aware of just how extraordinary the project of higher education is. Amidst the tumult of cleaning and clearing, I quickly found myself in a series of discussions about the value of teaching writing, about the role of technology in the liberal arts, about the place of business in the humanities. Just like that, the human network of communication was back up, and the pursuit of ideas and their ramifications was back underway. Like the damage, this sense of connection was everywhere evident, not spectacular but consistent.
Between talks, I explored the campus. Because I’m involved in a project to redesign the Rutgers College Avenue Campus, I’ve discovered an interest in university architecture. FSU’s new School of Nursing caught my eye and, on a lark, I asked for a tour. As Dean Anne Boykin showed me around, I found myself in a space designed, in every particular, to foster the mission of caring for others. I asked Dean Boykin how she had been able to imagine such a building, one that was both beautiful and functional, and she said: it’s easy – you just make sure to consult with everyone who cares about the project. You listen to everything they have to say. Then you keep consulting, and you keep listening.
As it goes with the landscape, the university, the culture, and the self, it goes with the Department as well: everything is always under construction and always under repair. The network is up and the conversation is ongoing.
Keep in touch,
Richard E. Miller