Recent work

It’s been a while — five years, to be exact — since I took time to reflect on some of my favorite recent stories. I don’t often get a chance to look back on past work. As a full-time writer at Brown University, I’m always juggling a few stories each week. Most often, I’m immersed in the story up until the moment it’s published, when I immediately release it from my thoughts and pivot to the next item on the agenda.

But there are a few stories that stick with me for a bit longer. Sometimes, the subject matter is so engrossing that I keep reading about it after the fact. Other times, I’ll hit it off with an interviewee and I’ll get inspired to dig into their past work. Still other times, I’m just plain proud of my writing, and I spend a day or two basking in the glow of a job well done.

Here are a few of the stories I’ve enjoyed sharing recently.

Creating a lifelong singer

Choral music is a longtime passion of mine — I’ve been singing in groups since I was 13 — so I was thrilled when Chorus America staff reached out two years ago and asked if I was interested in contributing to their quarterly magazine, The Voice.

I was especially thrilled to write this article on how youth chorus directors can turn their singers into lifelong choir enthusiasts. My parents practically dragged me to my first choir rehearsal kicking and screaming, but not long afterward, I became a true believer. Singing in groups has had such a positive impact on my life that these days, when I move to a new city, seeking out a choir to join is my first order of business.

This wasn’t the kind of writing I was used to. Over the years, I’ve turned out hundreds of 500- to 800-word stories that draw from a small handful of interviews and other sources. But six-page features involving a dozen interviews and hours of research? That was unfamiliar territory. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about scheduling, outlining and planning from this freelance experience — and I’ve carried those lessons with me to my new job, where I’m often engaged in big writing projects with multiple stakeholders.

A year in Rhode Island & Two years in Rhode Island

The nearly three years I lived in Colorado were probably the healthiest, most balanced and most contented years of my life so far. Perhaps that’s why the transition from the Rockies to the Ocean State has felt, well, a little rocky. Ever since Ian and I arrived in Rhode Island in the middle of the 2018 bomb cyclone, I’ve had mixed feelings about this place — its weather, its people and its traditions. How can a place be so proud of its past, yet so mired in corruption? Why are its residents so devoted to drinking iced coffee, even in the depths of winter?  I had fun thinking about the many contradictions and colorful characters of this state as I reminisced on one year of adventures. Then, a year later, I reassessed my relationship with the state and found it had grown on me.

halecounty

RaMell Ross heads to the Oscars

In 2019, four of the 10 documentary films that were nominated for Academy Awards were created by people with ties to Brown University — proof positive that this school’s reputation for welcoming and nurturing outside-the-box creative minds is well earned. The documentary filmmaker RaMell Ross, who in 2019 was a professor of the practice at Brown, had a whirlwind year following the release of his “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.” I snuck in a half-hour phone call with him just as he touched down in Los Angeles for a week of talk show appearances, dinners, galas and meetings leading up to the Oscars. Given the weighty subject matter of his films, I didn’t expect to be laughing through the entire interview, but that’s exactly what happened.

antigones

Students find contemporary connections to ancient text in ‘Antigones’ course

It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college, and I still miss the undergraduate experience every day. I was one of those students who loved learning for the sake of it. Even though I majored in journalism, I ventured far outside my course requirements for my own pleasure, dabbling in German, paleobiology, Russian literature and music history. Today, as a staff writer at Brown, I’m lucky enough to get to relive that student experience on a regular basis.

The comparative literature course “Antigones” was one of those courses I would have been dying to take as an undergrad. It involved a close study of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play, along with several contemporary adaptations ranging from graphic novels to experimental theater scripts. It culminated in a short performance of students’ own adaptations. I loved how their performances shed new light on the play’s timeless commentary on gender, social class and protest.

History_PortugalsTiles

Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

The tiles of Portugal have become Instagram darlings in the last few years. It’s easy to appreciate their beauty, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find out much about their history. I spent a few hours researching the Portuguese empire’s historical preference for tiles, which dates back to one leader’s love of Moorish design. Then, I went down a deep internet rabbit hole trying to find out more about the history behind the intricate tiled sidewalks all over Portugal and its former colonies around the world. Turns out they came into being as a result of a king’s weird obsession with white and a subsequent catastrophic earthquake. You know you want to click on that link to learn more.

brownband

Students, alumni celebrate accomplishments, anniversaries in procession

Working at the 250-year-old Brown University has introduced me to a fascinating world of quirky, venerable traditions that didn’t really exist at the University of Oregon, my alma mater. At Brown, there’s an annual holiday concert performed entirely in Latin; students and faculty alike embrace the legend of the fictional Josiah Carberry, professor of “psychoceramics”; and the logistics surrounding the century-old Commencement procession are so wonderfully complex that they need an explainer page.

The procession, in all its sceptered and top-hatted glory, is something you really have to witness to appreciate — which is why I felt daunted by the task of bringing this tradition to life in a story. I’m proud of the way I made it work by weaving together university history, inspiring student stories (including a father-daughter duo who graduated and walked in the procession together!) and fun bits of color.

cyrano

Cyrano de Bergerac is the hero we need right now

I love interviewing professional actors. I find that they’re not only incredibly honest and passionate but also incredibly articulate — which makes sense, given it’s their job! For three seasons, I managed public relations for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and I had so many compelling conversations with its actors and directors. I was particularly taken aback by the honesty and candor of Scott Coopwood, who played lead roles in “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

1958

Notes from 1958

I was incredibly fortunate to be working for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as it celebrated its 60th season and completed its second tour through Shakespeare’s complete canon of plays — benchmarks that few other American festivals have met. As we prepared to promote the season, I sifted through the festival history I could find — old programs, news clips and photos — and realized that many of the young actors featured in that first festival in 1958 were likely still alive today. I spent several hours tracking a handful of them down, and I’m so glad I did: They had some fascinating stories to share, and some had gone on to achieve monumental success. Over the course of the summer, I ran a short series of condensed interviews with the original cast and crew. I don’t know if they were my most widely read stories, but they sure were among the most fun to put together.

Boat Building GIF by Brown University - Find & Share on GIPHY

Boatbuilding course at Brown includes equal parts discussion and construction

Here’s another course I would have been eager to take as an undergraduate — although I’m not sure my construction skills would have been up to par! In “Boatbuilding: Design, Making and Culture,” students bonded as they read up on the history of boatbuilding and skilled labor and then made an actual wooden boat that floats. I loved that this course gave engineering students an opportunity to appreciate the role cultural context plays in the building process, while it gave students in the humanities a chance to work with their hands.

The new and improved AP test

A New York Times article today reminded me of a time when the AP was more than a national news wire service to me.

The advanced placement test was one of the greatest banes of my high school existence, second only to the college application process. From what I remember, the entire experience, which I withstood three (almost four!) times, consisted of three steps: receive a giant 1,000-page tome, memorize everything in it, and sit an exam whose questions in no way relate to the hundreds of pages of facts you memorized.

The first test I sat was for U.S. history. Just before the test, I remember going over the succession of presidents with a friend’s flashcards, trying desperately to remember which state ratified the Constitution first and telling my friend to stop playing his ukulele so I could concentrate. The test was far more difficult than any of us imagined and covered material we hadn’t had time to touch on in class. We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

The second test I sat was for English literature. Since most questions had more to do with reading comprehension than with memorization, I felt prepared after years of reading classic books and writing critical essays. I walked in confident and walked out tired but still sure I’d done well. I’d used knowledge from a wide range of books I had read, in school and at home, to answer the essay questions, and I had even drawn on past choir repertoire to answer questions about Latin roots of English words–further proving my belief that academic well-roundedness is still valuable.

The third and final test I sat was for calculus. Advanced calculus, no less. I don’t talk about that test, except to say that poetry was involved when it shouldn’t have been.

While I studied and prepared for these tests, I couldn’t help but think–why can’t they all be more like the literature test? That exam, rather than asking me to rattle off authors and book titles robotically, tested my ability to think critically and organize my thoughts coherently.

Why do tests in history, math and science focus so intently on students’ memory of names and places? Shouldn’t we demonstrate our comprehension of a subject by discussing broader concepts? What’s more important: that we know which days the Civil War began and ended or that we know what caused the war and how the war affected Americans?

Finally, the College Board agrees. The Times says:

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.

Not only is it impossible for students to memorize every fact, figure and formula without a photographic memory, it’s also beside the point–and I’m glad the test writers finally get that.