Kerri K. Morris
In one of her favorite blogs, Kerri K. Morris draws a parallel between surgeons and serial killers. She writes that, “…surgery is a highly organized and ritualized endeavor involving knives and costumes” but concedes of the two that “their projected outcomes are different. When a surgeon puts the knife to you the goal is to heal, while serial killers are aiming to, well, to kill.” She knows a bit about surgeons; Morris is a bladder cancer survivor. In remission since 2013, she writes a blog at ChicagoNow—a Tribune Media-owned blogging community—called Cancer Is Not a Gift. May is Bladder Cancer Awareness Month.
Morris is an associate professor of English at Governors State University, one of GSU’s many full-time faculty members who teaches incoming freshman, a job she takes very seriously. She also loves sports, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is working on an academic essay on Kanye West—caveat, she says: she’s a fan. This counter-balance between lettered pursuits and pop culture is evident in Morris’ classroom and conversation. She has a preternatural knack for recognizing the rhetoric of everyday life, and she extracts it for her students, laying it out for dissection like the surgeons and killers of her blog.
Morris also works with Writing Across the Curriculum, an academic initiative that cultivates and supports writing in classes outside of composition and literature.
In reading your blog, there's a lot of humor—not necessarily about cancer, but just humor in general. Was that a conscious, editorial decision to write those pieces along with the heavier ones, or do you just write whatever happens to be in your head on a given day?
Early on, it was very intentional because I found for the first year after I was diagnosed with cancer, I had just lost my sense of humor—and it’s a major part of my life. If I make someone laugh, that makes me happy. My husband makes me laugh. That’s an important thing to me, and I like to think of myself as someone who makes my friends laugh, so it really killed me. It was like nothing was funny anymore. I didn’t see the lightness in anything, so I intentionally looked up cancer humor, and I found Tig Notaro who had found out she was diagnosed, I think it was Stage 3 breast cancer, the day that she did a standup, so she announced it at the standup.
She comes out and she says, “Yeah, I have cancer,” and the room falls about laughing. There are some other folks out there who do humor blogs and whatever, so I looked up people who were using humor in it to see how it goes, and I found her very funny, which was good, but that’s not my experience of cancer. I just don’t find anything about it funny. It eludes me. But I knew I saw other things as funny, so learning to tell those stories was really in a way therapy for me. It was a way of saying, “Look—I can still laugh.”
Do your students know about your blog?
They do, and I teach them blogging. The thing I think that I love the most about having had this blog is that it’s opened up a part of the world for me that my students need to see. At ChicagoNow, we have community managers who help us with the blog. They teach us. Then we have a Facebook group where we can talk about blogs, so there’s this whole learning component that goes along with it. I’m getting to know other bloggers and most of them have a day job that includes some kind of blogging. And I guess when I heard that I started thinking, “Okay, this is a genre that my students need to know." So learning about that process for me means that now I’m not teaching this from the perspective of theory; I’m teaching this from the perspective of being on the ground writing a blog. I'm learning how to build an audience, about writing, about SEO, writing headlines, writing blogs in ways that are accessible—I'm learning about so many things that I can bring to them. I know the writers who are in this particular medium, and I can put the students in touch with them, and they can see what’s out there.
I think realizing that the writing that we do in the classroom—and I teach academic writing, they’re using Greek terminology to analyze work—I think it’s just kind of mind-blowing for them to connect the two. What I want to do is show them that these rhetorical concepts that are ancient are still relevant. And with a blog, these are real live audiences as opposed to teacher audiences, so they can take blogging skills to an employer and the employer is going to jump at that. I have so many Advanced Composition students who’ve had internships where (employers) find out they can write a blog and it’s like, “Okay, we’re putting you to work.”
Does blogging play into the freshman experience?
It does by way of audience. My freshmen have an advocacy project. They find something that they are interested in and are advocates for, and we go through various processes and help them figure it out. The first step is that they do a project memo where they say “This is what I’m interested in working on.” Then they find a case study, and then their last two parts are writing a memo to me explaining the rhetorical work that they’ve done, then they have to do an oral presentation to the class, presenting an overview of the project. The point here is not to do the project. That’s rather outside the scope of the class. The point is to see how language can connect them to issues and issues to audiences, and to think about who those audiences are. When I ask them who their audience is, they often say "Well it’s a general audience," and I always say “No, you can’t have a general audience.” A general audience does not care what you have to say. They care what Barack Obama has to say or Ted Cruz, but they don’t care about what you have to say. Audience is a rhetorical concept, and this is very practical learning. The public square is out there, and our words help us communicate within and be a part of it.
GSU does something unique in asking their full-time faculty to teach these first-year courses. Do you see this move as something positive?
Full-time faculty need to be doing this because the first year writing course is one of the least favorite courses that students take—they don’t want to take that course. I love to create enthusiasm. I genuinely like this age group, and I genuinely like this stage in the writing process. I’m out there learning a new kind of writing so I can bring to them a richness of experience and a stability within the institution. It’s a challenge teaching freshmen. We have to learn. We have to meet them where they are, and it turns out that can be hard. You think you know where they are and it turns out as you get to know them that wow…there are all these things about them you did not know. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about that and talking with them. I think many of us normally think of students as hating writing. With my first two years of freshmen, the thing that has surprised me the most is how many of them tell me they love to write. It’s like, "Really? But you hate this class, and you say you’ve had bad experiences with English." So what are they writing? They’re writing poetry, they’re writing short stories, they’re writing songs, they’re doing poetry slams, and so language is hugely important for them. That’s where you meet students, and for me the connection is the blog. So one of the things that I do in my class is they have a portfolio of their writing and they choose just some of their assignments to revise in it, but one of the requirements is to include an additional piece of writing of their choice, and they have to explain why they want it in there. It can be anything. It can be a grocery list if they have a good reason for including it, but it gives them a chance to say, “You know, I know I don’t impress the heck out of you as someone who does research but look at this short story...”
This curriculum can adapt, and we’re committed to finding out more, letting them teach us about what they need. They’re getting our best.