S.3 E.6 “Who Are You on the Page?”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews English professor and poet Rebecca Fremo.
Posted on September 3rd, 2020 by

Rebecca Taylor Fremo, Professor of English and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) at Gustavus, and author of Moving this Body, her recently published collection of poems, talks about the power of writing in constructing one’s identity and story, the WAC program, her memoir in progress, and what students gain from English courses.

Season 3, Episode 6: “Who Are You on the Page?”

Greg Kaster:

Gustavus English professor Rebecca Fremo.

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

“Like a retired snowbird, I split my time between two homes, composition studies and creative writing. But unlike those who head to Phoenix when the snow flies and stay put until the thaw, I shuttle back and forth. All my scholarly writing is creative. In revising poems and essays I benefit from scholarship about the writing process, and no matter what form my work takes, I explore questions related to writing and identity.”

Those words were written by my colleague, Rebecca Taylor Fremo, professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Gustavus. Once a proud teacher, beloved and respected by students, Becky has won the two major teaching awards at Gustavus, the Ed Gram Carlson Award for Distinguished Teaching Awarded by the provost on the recommendation of previous winners and the Swanson Barn Award for Teaching Excellence given by the student senate and based on nominations from students.

In addition to teaching and directing the writing program, Becky researches, writes, edits, and publishes a lot, including textbooks, poetry, articles and book chapters with titles like “Critical Inquiries”, “Readings on Cultures and Communities”, “You are a Reader; That’s What I need”, and “Moving This Body” a recently published collection of her poems. No one on our campus knows more about writing and teaching it, and students and faculty alike, myself included, have been the fortunate beneficiaries over the years of her extensive knowledge of both. For all these reasons, including my own interest in different forms of writing about the past, I’ve been looking forward to speaking with Becky for this Podcast, and now here we are. Hooray! Welcome, Becky.

Rebecca Fremo:

Thank you so much! I sound so much more impressive when you talk about me than I do in my own head.

Greg Kaster:

You are impressive, believe me. Thank you so much for joining us, and I’m looking forward to hearing you maybe read some poetry or whatever else you’d like to read for us later on, but let’s start at the beginning. I’m a historian, and as I always like to say, I like to start there with someone’s personal past. So, if I’m remembering correctly, you’re a native of Virginia. If you could start there and how you came to be interested in English and your path to where you are now, professor of English and Director of the writing program at Gustavus.

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure. I am from Virginia, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, though my parents were both from Brooklyn, New York, and I’m sure that as I talk about where I’m from, my accent will come out, which gets a little bit embarrassing, but I am from Richmond, Virginia, and gosh, how did I come to English? I was a theater kid, a theater junkie, really, and I had every intention of become a working actress. So, when I started at Virginia Tech, which is where I did my bachelor’s degree, I did start in theater and fully intended to finish in theater, but had always been good at English, not great. I was never the best writer in the class. I was always a good write. I was always that A- or B+ writer.

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

I had never really thought about myself as a write in a serious way. I was much more a performer, but a year of really thinking in a serious way about what it means to wait tables for the rest of your life while you hope for, in my case, character actress roles to come around, that was not a good option for me, and so what a lot of people don’t know about me, except some of my students, maybe, is that I did a year at Virginia Tech, and then I transferred to the College of William and Mary because that’s where Glen Close went to college, and I was a big fan of Glen Close, and I thought, “Oh, some magic will happen if I go to Williamsburg.”

Instead, in about six weeks time, I just decided I am not in any shape for serious consideration of my future, and I went home. I worked full-time for a year at UPS. I was really lucky to get that job and have health insurance back then. I lived in an apartment. I will say I had a wild life, and sowed some wild oats for about a year, and then ended up going back to Virginia Tech as an English major. I was really an English major by default in the most stereotypical way when you imagine people going, “Well, I love to read books. Maybe I’ll be an English major.”

That’s what I did, and in fact, I did love to read books, but even more than that, I loved to write about them. I got certified as a secondary English teacher and taught high school for a couple of years, which, in all honesty, I really, really loved a lot of things about teaching high school. The one thing I didn’t love about it is they hired me as a theater and English teacher, and I was no good at directing high school musicals and went back to school, back to Virginia Tech where I got a Master’s degree, met a woman who became a mentor to me. Her name is Eileen Shell. She is an incredible force of nature. She introduced me to rhetoric and composition, which is a field of study that focuses on the writing side of English, and that’s pretty much all she wrote.

From there I went straight through to a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio State, and this job at Gustavus is the first job that I got right out of my PhD program.

Greg Kaster:

As I’ve said before on these podcast episodes, I just love these stories because, even in your case, at a first glance may seem like, “Here’s an individual who knew exactly what she wanted to do from the moment she entered college as an undergraduate.” Not true. Right? I didn’t know, for example, about your theater background. As you say, you didn’t set out to major in English. It happened in the most stereotypical way, as you just said, and you may know, I know you know Misty Harper, our colleague, visiting prof in our history department. She also started out in the theater and then found her way to history in part because she was doing history plays or something with historical characters.

Rebecca Fremo:

Oh!

Greg Kaster:

Also, here, you think about, for me, I don’t know about you, I think about teaching. It’s performative, at least in part, and I love the theater. I never acted except, I guess, in the classroom, but I do love it. I just find all of that really interesting and fun, and I think instructive for students who feel they have to have it all sorted out from day one, as they start their undergraduate education. Just not true.

So you direct the writing center, again. You have in the past… Or the writing program. I’m sorry. The writing center is part of that. I remember coming to Gustavus. I started in ’86, and I remember, I don’t know if the article had just come up, but was it William Zinser, who… There was a bunch of stuff in the New York Times about the writing program, and it’s been a long time since, I mean, positive stuff about Gustavus, was writing across the curriculum. I just wonder if you tell us a little about where the writing program is now, the Writing Across the Curriculum Program. What makes it distinctive? What are some of its hallmarks?

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure. It was William Zinser, and when they hired me, that article was featured prominently in every interview that I had. People were showing me the article, talking about the article to make sure that I really understood the rich history of Writing Across the Curriculum at Gustavus. It’s one of the oldest continuing to function, WAC programs, and I will say WAC more frequently than Writing Across the Curriculum just because it’s a mouthful, but it’s one of the oldest and most well-respected programs in the country. The interesting thing for me about this is when I got here, I was not a WAC convert, by any means. I mean, I have a PhD in Composition Studies, in Rhetoric and Composition, and so I was a hardcore believer in first-year writing as a stand-alone, composition course, and I thought, “No way, when I get to this place, am I going to be convinced that writing is best taught by people from across the curriculum! Of course it’s best taught by people who are specialists.” Right?

I have now spent, what, 20 years at Gustavus, and I will tell you now that the things that my colleagues do with Writing Across the Curriculum just continue to amaze me. We have some of the best writing teachers I’ve ever encountered, and they are everywhere, including you, I should say. I love the work that you do with history majors on… Well, actually, I  think you even do it with your first-term seminar students on tracing sources and really helping them understand the detective work in looking at how one person might use another source, which might come from yet another source, right, so that you can see the life of the source.

You do incredible work. We have amazing people in the sciences. My colleague, Lauren Hect, in psychological, in the social sciences, she does amazing work in a flipped classroom setting, no less, with writing. What I learned from being a Gustavus is that, in fact, if you can really bring those really rich intellectual questions, which are often encased in some kind of disciplinary context, if you can bring those questions to the table so that students really have something to read and write and think about and talk about together, I just think the writing is so much more sophisticated. It’s really been interesting for me to go through a process of, I hate to use this word, but really of conversion to the point that I really to think this is the way to go with writing instruction.

You asked me where we are now, right? What’s changed, I think, over the years, A., the important thing to know about Writing Across the Curriculum is that it’s always been a grassroots movement. The programs that work best are the programs where there was a lot of faculty buy-in from across the curriculum, and we didn’t have to bring a person in to convert people over to our way of thinking of Writing Across the Curriculum. I remember being hired here in 2000 and having people like Larry Potts, in chemistry, sit me down and talk about how excited he was about teaching writing, or John Holty in the Math Department, how excited they were about teaching writing, and so I knew we had buy-in, and, in many ways, that made my job a lot easier.

Where we are now is, I think, an excited but scary point with Writing Across the Curriculum because we’ve just instituted a pretty major overhaul of the program by instituting a writing and information literacy component, and so we continue to have two pathways, or two kinds of writing courses at Gustavus. One is what we call Writ D, or Writing in the Disciplines. This is exactly what you might expect it to be. Scientists teaching science students how to write like Scientists. Right? Or historians teaching history students how to write like historians, but what we realized that we really needed to address and soon is the need for writing about disciplinary knowledge and information for a lay audience because academics are really good at writing and talking to each other and really lousy at writing to the general public and helping them understand what’s important about what we learn and what we study.

So writing and information literacy is sort of promised on the idea that we can help students learn how to not just do research in a way that’s ethical and responsible but to become literate about the information that they read and then share that information using their own language for a wide variety of audiences. I think the faculty, they’re interested in this. I think they’re a little scared about what it means to teach students how to write in every day language about disciplinary knowledge. As we move into the fall, this year will be our first fall offering these courses, these Writ L courses, for credit, and so, I think we have some real exciting and challenging work ahead of us.

Greg Kaster:

That Writ L piece of the new Challenge Curriculum that we’re going to be implementing actually excites me a great deal, and I was just speaking and recording an episode with Nathan Barry, who’s going to be a junior who’s part of the climate change lawsuit. He’s one of, I think, 21 plaintiffs showing all young people the true [inaudible 00:15:47] of the United States, and he was talking about… He’s a double major, Bio, Poly-Sci. We were talking about the importance of communicating to the public, clearly, the scientific information and why climate change matters, what can be done about it. I just think it’s so important.

One of my favorite writers is a Gustavus alum, James McPherson, a prominent Civil War historian who writes so well for a general audience, for a lay audience. So, I’m excited about that piece of the new curriculum. By the way, I had to go through a conversion experience, the same conversion experience. I would mutter, probably before you came, I guess. I’ve been here 30-some years. You’ve been here 20 years. Anyway, my early years, I didn’t know how to teach writing! That’s not what I signed up for, but, honestly, in large part because of speaking with you and going to these workshops you held and also and still hold, speaking with Eric Vroom, your colleague and my colleague and friend who’s the Director of the Writing Center, I now love… I don’t know that I teach writing like a pro does, but I do love trying to teach writing in my classes. I love [inaudible 00:16:59]. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I think it’s so important.

While I don’t write a lot, I enjoy it when I do it. So, consider me converted. What about your own writing? You write a great deal, and you write in different formats, poetry, essays, scholarly articles, chapters, textbooks on writing and composition ,but in the quote I read, you write about, you say, “In no matter what form my work, my writing takes, I explore questions related to writing and identity.” I wonder if you could say a little bit more about what you mean by that, exploring questions related to writing and identity and how that manifests itself in your writing, and then maybe read us a little bit from your work.

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure. I guess, I’m one of these people who recognizes, on a bad day I would call it my own self-absorption. On a good day, I might simply say that a lot of us who are writers use writing as a way to tackle the questions that keep us up nights, and I guess, maybe because I grew up a southerner with very northern, Brooklyn, New York, Jewish parents, maybe because I was interested in theater and sort of trying on other people’s voices and personalities, maybe because I was always that person or that kid who was involved with people who were very different from one another. So, I might have really close friends who were sort of jocks and really close friends who were sort of Grateful Dead-heads. I was always that sort of bridge person who could learn to communicate with lots of different people, and I think I’m just sort of fascinated by identity, by questions related to identity, by how we perform identity, by what kinds of identities we don’t get to take off at the end of the day.

I grew up in a neighborhood where my nextdoor neighbors were black, and our two families were very, very close, and growing up with that family sort of led me to be interested in literature about African American writers, which in turn led me to teach in a high school where that was a majority African American high school. So, I think all kinds of questions related to identity have been important to me in my life, and it’s not surprising that I would start to write about them, but I think what’s the most exciting thing for me about this kind of question, when I write, who am I and why am I writing this way? I just remember learning for the first time that I could shape the way I tell my own story on the page, and in doing that, there’s a really tremendous kind of power.

I know this is a long answer to a short question, but I had sort of a chaotic adolescence and a chaotic young adulthood, and I remember the first time I recognized that I could use my personal statement, this thing that we all write for graduate school admission. I could use my personal statement to actually make sense of the chaos and, in doing that, in shaping a story, I could see, “Oh. I know why I studied African American literature and taught high school in this particular neighborhood, and I know why I’m choosing to now move forward and study rhetorical practices of black women in the 19th century.” All of these things I could shape into a coherent narrative, and that’s incredibly powerful, I think. Journalists talk about the people who control the narrative control history, and I think we’re seeing this play out, unfortunately, in real time in politics, but I think those kinds of connections are fascinating.

All the teaching that I do, all the writing that I do, I think engages questions related to who are you? Who are you on the page? Who do you want other people to see when they read about you, and how can you take more control or more ownership over the story that you tell about yourself and your life?

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great answer. I love that answer because I’m interested in autobiography. I teach, one of my favorites is Frederick Douglass’s narrative of life, former slave turned great African American leader in the 19th century. Talk to the students about… And it’s not just in Douglass’s case, it’s not just that his acquisition of knowledge is power, it’s his ability to write and his ability to essentially write himself into existence, in a way, in that narrative, which goes through three iterations over time. Yes, absolutely, writing is power, and I think it has so much to do with, if one is writing about one’s self, and maybe even not. Could be writing something, seemingly, not about yourself, but how it relates to your identity and your ability to shape your identity.

I love that, too. The graduates are the college statement. I had never thought about that. That’s terrific. So, would you like to read something for us?

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure!

Greg Kaster:

We’d be glad to hear it.

Rebecca Fremo:

I just published in November of 2019 my first full-length collection of poems. It’s called “Moving This Body.” It was a bad year for publishing your first collection of poems because of COVID, so all of my readings pretty much were canceled, and now the book kind of sits on my shelf. It’s nice that it’ll have a little bit of life here. I’ll read a poem about memory. This one is called “If Memory Serves.”

This morning I tried to conjure the day of my first son’s birth. I craved the hours spent laboring, the smell of hospital, antiseptic, and the sting of needles, but most of all I needed to feel my husband’s pale hand squeezing mine, my nails boring into his palms. Instead, memory served the final days of our marriage, exquisitely bitter-sweet, dark chocolates in a heart-shaped box.

Greg Kaster:

That is wonderful. We have time for another one if you’d like. I want to come back to that.

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure. I’ve been thinking a lot about a colleague of mine in the English department, Philip Bryant, who has been with us for almost 30 years now, our only African American tenured faculty member at Gustavus, and he is a dear, dear friend and mentor of mine. He went through every word of this manuscript for me and with me, and I’m going to read a poem that I dedicated to him. It’s called “Waiting for the Orionids in Summer 2017.” For Philip, and it has an epigraph from Hamlet.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

What does it mean when clouds fill the skies night after night, obscuring meteor showers and northern lights, foiling the best laid plans, spoiling even a solar eclipse. It’s been a stormy year, to be sure. On my lawn chair, I shiver, strained to find Orion’s belt, but this night, too, disappoints. Here is the lesson: Never depend on science for some sure thing. It’s a thin line between physics and a farmer’s almanac. NOAA’s predictions are not easily discerned from Les Propheties of Nostradamus. And if there really are more things than facts, we mights as well take advice from tea leaves or a crystal ball. Why wait for the Orionids? The sky has already fallen. Now, mine the night for metaphors.

Greg Kaster:

That is a beautiful poem. I love that, and I love that line about… Well, I love all the lines, but the one about a thin line between physics and the farmer’s almanac. When did you start writing poetry? Was it when you were young or in graduate school or after graduate school?

Rebecca Fremo:

No, I wrote very bad poetry when I was young. I was the editor of our high school literary magazine, and that was called The Eagles Reflections. Reflections was the name of our magazine, and then I took a poetry class one time, a creative writing class in college as an undergrad, and it was the most horrifyingly negative experience that I ever had. I clearly was not highbrow enough for this creative writing professor, and I didn’t write again until I had been at Gustavus for about three years.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Rebecca Fremo:

And this is a little bit embarrassing, but I was divorced at Gustavus once I arrived, and I had a magical falling in love experience with my second husband. Shout out to second husbands everywhere, and I started to write again when that happened. I started to write poems, and I haven’t stopped since then.

Greg Kaster:

Well, please don’t stop. They’re both terrific.

Rebecca Fremo:

Aw, thank you.

Greg Kaster:

People should order the book Moving This Body. I wanted… I’m very interested in memory, both as a historian and just as a person, but that first poem, I’m wondering, are there certain themes you find yourself returning to as a poet? Is memory one of them or is that not the case?

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure. No, I think memory is one of them, and I think, certainly now, aging is one of them because I’m turning 52 next week.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, you’re so young. I’m 66.

Rebecca Fremo:

Oh, God. I am really fascinated by memory, and I’m just looking at the books on my shelf right now. I have such a bizarre collection of books because I’m working on a project, a memoir project about raising my three sons, all of whom have some form or another of autism spectrum disorder. So I’ve been reading a lot, this week in particular, about the autistic brain and short-term memory and long-term memory, and I just find it really interesting, the power of the individual memory and the power of the collective cultural memory. Right? How easy it is to be persuaded by other people that what you remember isn’t in fact true, or that something that didn’t really happen did happen.

It’s just really fascinating what the brain can do, and I think I used to think about this just on a metaphorical level and be interested in memory as a metaphor, but, man, some of these books on brain research are really interesting to read.

Greg Kaster:

I agree. I read just a few. I’m fascinated by that. I sometimes think I should’ve been a neuro scientist or something. I’m absolutely fascinated by that, and I wanted to ask you about the memiore project, so I’m glad you brought it up because, if I’m remembering correctly, you’re also… I don’t know if it’s the metaphor or literally about gardening. Isn’t that part of what you’re doing?

Rebecca Fremo:

Yes. Yep.

Greg Kaster:

Could you talk a little bit about that?

Rebecca Fremo:

Sure! So, like so many questions, they’re complicated for me. I started to garden, haphazardly, around the time that I got divorced, and I don’t know if that was just because I was looking for something to do or if that’s something that happens when you hit your 30s and you start wanting to see pretty things in your yard. I don’t know what it was, but the older my kids got and the more time I had that I could safely leave them indoors and that they wouldn’t hurt themselves when they’re little, the more I began to plant things, and I really plant sort of chaotically and haphazardly. If it’s pretty, I put it in the ground. If it grows, I split it in half and move it to another spot.

Ten, 15 years later, I have these, I think, kind of amazing gardens in my yard, and my ex-husband, who’s very perceptive, one day said to me, “Oh, this is all about the kids.” And I said, “What do you mean it’s about the kids?” And he said, “You know. You feel like you’re successfully growing these flowers.” And I said, “Yeah.”

“And you feel like you’re having a lot of trouble growing these kids.” And I said, “Yeah. You’re right. That is exactly what it is about.” So, the more experiences I’ve had outdoors, especially in Minnesota where we have such a short period of time that I think it’s possible for humans to be outside, the more I appreciate nature and what nature can do for you, but I’m also recognizing that I do have a tremendous need to understand how and why things grow, and the sort of logical connection between care taking and health, and I think when you have kids on the spectrum or, really, when you have children that are struggling with any kind of disability or challenge, the first thing you ask yourself is what did I do? What did I do wrong to make this happen?

Certainly in the literature on autism, you see an awful lot of rhetoric of blame in the history of autism, even some of the earliest explanations for why children were born with autism were attributed to what they called the “refrigerator mother— a mother who was too cold and didn’t give freely of her love and affection so as to cause children who couldn’t interact normally, emotionally. I started really thinking about this metaphor. What does it mean to grow things? What does it mean to grow kids? That led me to some research on gardening and planting and, in particular, native prairie plantings, and the more you delve into that metaphor, the more it starts to make sense.

Do we ever think about what it means to weed a garden in the education system? How is the education system set up to weed out kids that don’t seem to fit in to the ecosystem? Right? What does it mean to choose medications for a child? What’s the parallel for that in gardening? Is it about using chemicals, not using chemicals? I’m working on a book that sort of moves through stages of planting a garden and stages of raising children on the spectrum, and I’m about maybe 75 pages in. It will probably take me six, seven years to write this book at the rate that I write, but I’m slowly plodding through, slowly.

Greg Kaster:

I can’t wait to read it because my wife, Kate, and I, we live in Minneapolis. About four years ago, we started a community garden literally just across from our condo building. My mom grew up on a farm, but I didn’t really garden. I think I had a garden briefly at our house in St. Peter near Gustavus, but my God, the metaphysics of gardening, the psychology of gardening, the emotional investment in gardening. There was fire on Christmas Day, tragic fire, no one was killed, but burned down a place where people who were in need of housing lived, and we were concerned that there were toxins from that fire in our garden plots.

Not the case, but there was a moment of walking by the garden, I guess it was maybe in February or March. I found myself crying just out of blue at the thought of not being able to garden again. I don’t know where that came from, so it’s powerful in addition to thinking about it and raising children. Good luck with it. It sounds like you’re well into it, and it will be quite interesting, I know.

In the time remaining, let’s return to English. There are all kinds of novels, of course, and I think Sandra was supposed to be doing a TV show about an English prof, but in any case, people easily make fun of English and the Humanities. What’s your elevator pitch for English? I mean, I know we have a superb English department at Gustavus. What’s your pitch for studying English?

Rebecca Fremo:

Oh my gosh. There is no more persuasive tool in the world than the story, and so you can throw facts at people until you’re blue in the face, but until you can contextualize those facts in story, in narrative, you will not be successful. So, I think that what an English major is taught to do, obviously, to write clearly, to communicate well, but to do that work in a way that really works for other human beings, to frame things in terms of narrative and story, to delve into the reasons why people behave as they do, to come to understand the role of culture in communication, to work well in groups. So much of what we do in the English department involves collaborative work, which is incredibly important. To really interrogate what it means to understand another person’s identity and to empathize with that other person as you communicate, to categorize, to alphabetize, to play with language.

I mean, I love our majors. I love my colleagues. I feel so incredibly lucky to work in a department where students are in our classes because they’re doing something they genuinely love, and that is a real luxury. I teach courses that keep kind of a foot in the world outside the institution, as well. So, one of my favorite courses to teach is course called Writing in Nonprofits that helps teach students about grant writing, that allows them to work with local nonprofits in the area. Again, after COVID, if it ever ends, hopefully we’ll be able to do that kind of work safely again. I just think it’s really, really important for our students to understand that words, stories, writing, this has an impact in the real world and can be used to effect change in real ways.

Greg Kaster:

Could not agree more. That’s just as true of our history majors and philosophy majors, classics majors, biology majors, and learning. If you were able to write clearly and effectively, wow. I’d say you’re worth your weight in gold. You have a leg up in the job market, for sure, but also just in life. Right? Being able to express yourself is so important both orally and in writing.

Becky, this has been so much fun. It’s been a pleasure. I love the poems. Thank you so much. Prospective students listening, current students listening, write away for Professor Fremo’s classes in the English department. You will not regret it, and so thank you so much. I hope to see you. COVID will end, and I hope that we can all be back on campus in the fall, and I can’t wait to read your gardening book. I know it’s not really your gardening book, but the memiore you’re working on. So, this has been fun. Take good care, and see you back on campus, hopefully, in September.

Rebecca Fremo:

Thank you so much! What a pleasure! I haven’t really been talking to other humans. I’ve been talking to my plants! It’s really great to have this opportunity. I’m a great fan of you and your work. Thanks so much!

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:41:08] so much with all of us with your writing. Thank you. Take care. Bye, bye.

Rebecca Fremo:

Bye.

 

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