Dr. Joseph Little
Associate Professor of English and Director of WRT 100
Like many of you, I stand in awe of writing: of its power to transform the human mind, of its role in coordinating the patterns of human interaction that underwrite complex society, of its ability to stir the soul and influence the will of others. I look at writing the way my wife looks at a breaching whale. My students see this, and, for the most part, they are intrigued. At least for the first week of the semester.
After that, it’s up to all of us to keep the spell alive, to stave off common indifference long enough for each student to find reason to invest. While student engagement is a daily negotiation that takes place in the classroom, office hours, and email, I do rely on two policies to help it along: Where possible, students in my courses choose their own writing topics, and I assign not only school genres but also professional and community genres that give their work relevance beyond the classroom. In Thinking and Writing, students are encouraged to submit their book and film reviews to local newspapers and blogs. In Writing and Well-Being, past students and I co-authored a paper that I presented on their behalf at the 2014 Conference on Writing Research in Amsterdam. In Teaching Composition, pre-service education students write statements of teaching philosophy as a way of both synthesizing course material and preparing for the job market. In short, in the spirit of John Dewey, I encourage my students to invest in their education by situating school in productive relationship with society.
An advocate of experiential education, in 2010, I created the Great Guatemalan Adventure, an annual eight-day backpacking trip open to all students at Niagara. Every spring break, we hike volcanoes, explore indigenous cultures, and meet with community leaders devoted to social justice in some of Guatemala’s most impoverished villages. Many of the students return transformed; parents and professors tell me they can see the difference. For those enrolled in my course on ethnography and travel writing, the trip offers an experiential component that profoundly alters their relationship with the course material. Reading the war memoir I, Rigoberta Menchu becomes a different matter altogether after talking with former soldiers from the war, and returning to campus with a stack of jottings and field notes affords many students their first opportunity to write with authority in the genre of the travelogue.
In my own writing, I recently completed Letters from the Other Side of Silence, a spiritual memoir published in 2017 by Homebound Publications. The book chronicles my search for a sustainable life after slipping into a mystical state atop a volcano in Guatemala. The journey takes me to Nepal: to a reclusive Russian mystic meditating high in the Himalayas, and to a Nepali mustard farmer who, in living out his final days, embodies a grace and spiritual composure worthy of study. The journey also takes me through crisis as I develop a relationship with mountains that borders on addiction, and later on an 800-mile winter road trip from Buffalo to St. Louis to have coffee with Belden Lane, a contemplative theologian who helps me turn the journey inward to the conceptual metaphors we use to orient ourselves toward the divine. At the close of the memoir, readers join me at the Friendship Village, a residential school and clinic in Hanoi, Vietnam, that serves approximately 120 children and young adults living with disabilities caused by Agent Orange. It is here that I begin to realize the wholeness of a life that balances the inner fire of wordless prayer with the satisfaction of serving others, and it is here where all author profits from the sale of my book are donated.
On the horizon are computational projects exploring nondiscursivity and globally synchronized prayer, an edited collection of war testimonies to stand in contrast to the sanitized accounts of war that pervade popular media, and my perennial goal of learning to liberate beauty from my classical guitar. If these topics interest you, feel free to stop by my office for tea.