From English Department Communications Intern Kara Nosal: This week, I met up with Dean Sangalis, the Teacher’s Assistant for my Creative Non-Fiction class. In addition to being a TA, Dean works in the Writing Center, and is a graduate student in the creative nonfiction program. We sat down on a bench in the sun one afternoon to talk about our common love of the English language. Though, I soon learned from talking to Dean that it may not be prudent, much less possible, to focus too intently on one topic for very long.
What is your connection to the English Department?
Well, I’m hesitant to put both my feet into the world of academia. Obviously, I’m somewhat embedded into the CSU English Department, but I don’t necessarily feel I belong.
Tell me more.
I don’t like the system of academia, the hierarchy of knowledge and all that entails, but there are things that I do like about it. I like the people. In a classroom, you share yourself with everybody in the room. Ideally, you’re in a comfortable environment, and you can learn from your peers as well as your teachers. But then it is gone [when you graduate]. That’s part of why I came back. It’s hard to find that in the “real world.” That’s why I like school, and learning with others.
It’s interesting that you are resistant to the academic structure, but still you’re here. If you could design the perfect learning environment to teach English, what would that look like to you?
For me teaching English isn’t just about teaching English. I don’t like how everything is so fragmented. I don’t like how all the disciplines are so broken apart. There are things that you can’t say with the English language, things that might be better said with mathematics or with music. For me, English, and more generally language, is very much so life. In high school, I liked the sciences. I liked physics. I still do. Tying all this together into a holistic system can only benefit all the systems.
My perfect English learning environment? It’s just a community. It’s about being on the same page with everyone and recognizing what we are trying to get out of our common experience, what we are trying to accomplish. Then coming together to make it happen.
I’m curious to know what your undergraduate experience was like. Where did you go for your undergraduate degree?
Miami University in Ohio. I studied creative writing there, after going in undecided my freshman year. I was interested in many different things. At first, I signed up for communications. But I was like, “What’s going on here? I know all these things. All we are doing is applying technical terms to talk about it.” Which can be handy because, while you don’t necessarily “teach” something like communications or writing, you talk about technique and can see how that technique is pulled off. You need a shared language, a terminology that can be applied to the discipline. I decided that categorizing the sphere of human interaction was not something I wanted to pursue. I remember sitting in a gen-ed class one day, and asking the girl next to me what her major was. She said creative writing. I said, “You can major in creative writing?” And then I changed my major that day, on a gut impulse.
When I first came here I was exposed to a new level of thought that was starting to turn my brain into a mush. I started delving into the way the academy thinks about everything, in little niches. When you’re a scholar engaged in a discourse community where all these people are writing about the same thing, you’ve got this little world that you’re upholding. You hope it is applicable to our world. I just don’t think information and knowledge can be equated. Knowledge must be backed by personal experience.
Creative Writing seems to be a popular concentration for people who are interested in a lot of different things.
Creative writers are of a particular ilk. They may think too much. They may be able to see through guises. For me, discipline is always being aware of the fine fibers of agreement that are constantly upholding a situation at any given moment. We’re all making order out of chaos in some way. Writing is a good way to do that. But then again writing is just an examination of life, or a re-creation of it. There are metaphors that are so incredibly embedded in our very persons, in our forms, that to be able to manipulate language is to manipulate the world. Look at the legal system. Words can kill. Words can hurt. We tell ourselves a story with language. We may not be conscious of it all the time, but it’s a powerful story. Right now, our story is destroying the world. Being an author, for me, is seeing this insanity and recognizing the responsibility that lies in telling a story, in living life. Not only on paper, but with your actual person. Would you like to make a better moment? Do you want to be a person who makes others around you feel more peaceful, more pleasant, more happy? It’s a choice that everyone has the power to make.
Like art majors, English majors are sometimes seen as studying something that is not worthwhile. At most, they may produce some form of entertainment. But the way that you’re talking about it makes it sound as if English majors could have a big impact on the future by retelling the story we have been telling ourselves. If your theory is correct, then we could change the world. Is that right?
Yes. In the end, a system is built from individuals. It’s easy to point fingers and say this is where we went wrong. That’s were I slipped into cynicism in my in undergraduate years. I learned how badly we have messed up the world. The remedy I’ve found would be to take the time to understand that what’s going on outside in our world is a reflection of what is going on inside ourselves.
What better place to do that but in the arts, I would think.
Absolutely. I mean, go out and try to make change directly. But, heck, you can’t change people. That’s a sad realization. There’s no way you can change a person. The best you can do is give them a shiny example. Everyone’s responsible for themselves. If we don’t take responsibility for ourselves, then it just becomes a huge mess. We’ve lost the ability to rest in silence and know that the entire world is carried around inside us constantly, through stories we tell ourselves. Silence, in many ways, speaks a lot better than language can, because it can cut through those oftentimes false stories that play mentally on repeat.
That’s a provoking thought coming from a language lover.
That’s the struggle for me, personally. What do I have to say that hasn’t been said one thousand times already? Everything has been said. But I’m excited by the prospect of how I might say it – I know everyone has that potentiality. To artfully frame the silence, through language or otherwise, in a way that is totally unique to the individual. To do that, it’s a matter of listening. I think it’s imperative to listen well in order to be able to write well. You read celebrated works, masters of the craft, and you listen. But then coming into your own voice is totally a solitary act. That’s also why I feel so strongly about music. It’s another way to listen and develop that cadence, that style. I always compare writing to music. It’s the rhythm of the words that sometimes impart that emotional reaction more so than the subject matter.
In that case, do you have a musical book you could recommend?
The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten, most definitely. Highly recommended. But that’s literally a music book. As far as musical language goes, I recently gave my sister Transition, by Iain Banks. The language and pacing of that book is great, it’s so fast and filled with music. It’s science fiction, and it’s ridiculous, and I love it.
I think we’ve discussed all of life on this bench!
Well, that’s what happens when you sit down to interview me, Kara!
I know that now. How you speak is how you live. Integrated.
Yes. It’s all about recognizing those metaphors and then making a choice to live always with those concepts in mind.