by Richard E. Miller

Richard E. MillerThe summer after I completed sixth grade, I traveled overseas for the first time. I went with my sister, my mother, her band of teachers, and some sixty undergraduates on their way to six weeks of intensive language training in Tours.

I’d like to say I was the perfect companion, but the mind of a twelve-year-old boy is not home to particularly nuanced thoughts. Everything about the experience annoyed me—the tours of the museums, the unfamiliar language, the undergraduates, the food. What really drove me crazy, though, was the role cameras played at every event: ubiquitous, they were always at the ready, not only shaping the experience for the camera holders, but actually standing in for the experience of seeing. On the precipice of adolescence, I floated on a sea of superiority and took no pictures.

My relationship to photography remained unchanged until the arrival of affordable digital cameras. During my past two sabbaticals, I walked the streets of European towns, wandered down country paths, and scrabbled up hillsides in search of a view—letting the camera serve as both a teacher and a prosthesis, allowing it to literalize the act of focusing, letting it open me to the possibility of being in the moment. For brief periods of time, I could slow down and feel my endlessly nattering inner monologue subside. W riting has always met my need for calm reflection. But, when the English department received a gift to establish an undergraduate learning community committed to writing, the question of what “writing” is at this moment in history took on a fresh urgency. Could we create a learning community for students who are “born digital”—who experience reading and writing, first and foremost, with computers, cell phones, instant messaging, and Facebook? Is calm reflection a part of the digital world?

Fortunately, in designing the learning community that has since become Writers House, we never had to choose between a space for digital students and a space for students more comfortable in a world of paper and print. At Writers House, we decided, writing would be “broadly construed”—a phrase that imagined members of this learning community producing poetry, plays, and fiction, but also documentary films, visual essays, spoken word performances, podcasts, and graphic narratives. So, we built three seminar rooms to engage students with the written word, an instructional space to promote collaborative writing with new media, and a lounge where students could meet and talk about their work. Then we stepped back to see what would happen.

These snapshots of co-curricular programming during the first year at Writers House stand out in my mind: the establishment of the Bookmark Series, where recently-published Rutgers faculty from various disciplines discussed the inspiration for their scholarly projects with an audience of undergraduates; the first Writers House Student Film Festival, where student projects from our documentary filmmaking and digital storytelling courses were screened to a standing room only crowd; and Alison Bechdel, author of the bestselling graphic memoir, Fun Home, describing how digital photography has transformed her composing process.

There was also this: Mark Doty, who read in the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series and returned on another occasion to give a lecture on mourning in Leaves of Grass. He later accepted our offer to join the English department as a Distinguished Writer and to assist in further developing the programming for Writers House.

There’ s more, of course, but finally there is this: when we designed the student lounge, we installed a set of track lights that cast these words on the wall: beauty, connection, inspiration, expression, imagination, creativity, horizon, now. They were meant to incite conversation and reflection, but, at some point in the spring semester, someone made off with the light and the lens that had the word “beauty” etched into it.

In a world where beauty is often lost among the clutter, the aspirations, the disappointments, the anxieties of everyday life, I was, in an odd way, charmed by this theft. It literalized our hopes that our students would strive to make a place for beauty in their lives. Stealing beauty, one moment at a time, I thought. Leaving room for beauty. The blank wall as an open invitation to compose.

Because we’re a university and not a museum, we expect wear and tear, even some low level of vandalism, as students move through our hallways, as they settle in, as they test out and try on new ideas. Learning is, of necessity, a messy business; it involves stumbles and falls, the pushing of boundaries, and the encounter with what is yet unknown.

Do we need to replace the missing light? I’m of two minds. The arguments for replacing it are self-evident. But, I am drawn to the idea that Writers House is a place where beauty is in abundance—as a topic of conversation, an ideal, an enigma, the vibrant result of a thriving learning community in action. There’s the word on the wall and there’s the ineffable, evanescent activity. One is easily replaced. The other can only be realized moment by moment and thus can never be stolen. At Writers House beauty isn’t something that hangs on a wall or gets projected on a screen; it’s something we’re trying to do.

We thank you for your continued support. It’s been an extraordinary year, as the following pages attest. We’ve added several new sections in this issue of Future Traditions Magazine to capture the multifaceted life of the department, our faculty, our students, our alumni, and our friends. It’s our biggest issue yet. We value your input and, as always, invite your feedback. Keep on giving.

Richard E. Miller