Steve Rogers

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MSU Professor Gets Inspiration in Kosovo

STARKVILLE, Miss.–In the capital of war-torn Kosovo where children grapple with a national history of ethnic cleansing and organized crime, one Mississippi State University professor found — and taught — hope.

Rich Raymond, also head of MSU’s English department, took sabbatical leave from MSU during January through July of 2012 to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship in the Eastern European nation. In Kosovo, Raymond taught American literature and academic research methods to 22 master’s students studying teaching at the University of Pristina, located in Kosovo’s capital city.

Raymond recently published a 229-page book detailing how his students developed critical thinking skills to evaluate the paradoxes of slavery and liberty, as well as justice and injustice — the story of how they learned American literature. “Writing Visions of Hope: Teaching Twentieth-Century American Literature and Research,” published by Information Age Publishing Inc., focuses on students’ capacity for hope despite the continued violence they face.

“This book is the story of how these Kosovo students learned to connect American literature to the literature of their own country. The themes — it’s uncanny how parallel they are,” Raymond said.

Government leaders in Kosovo are former communists, and schools are places where students are asked to regurgitate the information they’ve heard in lectures, Raymond said. Students in his class were initially concerned about giving the “right” answer, but Raymond used that as an opportunity to teach them, if they can provide textual evidence to support their interpretation, their answers are correct.

Students wrote about what they read in Raymond’s class in responsive journal entries. They responded to Raymond’s analytical questions about plot and characterization, as well as opinion questions about how the text related to, or failed to relate to, the students’ lives. Throughout the courses he taught, Raymond used writing-to-learn strategies, which encourage students to write to help them process and retain course content.

“Writing Visions of Hope” opens with Raymond’s narrating the students’ responses to the writing-to-learn strategies, and the book continues by describing how Raymond’s students learned to use research to connect American and Balkan narratives to justice and injustice, oppression and liberty, and despair and hope, Raymond said.

The second half of the book celebrates students’ writing, as well as their development as critical thinkers, he explained, and the final chapter reveals students’ responses, as well as UP professors’ responses, to Raymond’s surveys about despair and hope for the future of Kosovo.

“I asked the professors and students, ‘Are you hopeful that Kosovo can escape the corruption, not only in the government, but in the educational system?’ Their answer was usually, ‘No,’ but when I got them to talk about their teaching and helping their students become freer people and useful in running the country in the future, they were all hope,” Raymond said.

Raymond’s belief that literature can offer hope in a world of despair is best reflected in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Raymond said. In 1954, Faulkner described his purpose in writing fiction was to tell the truth while offering a vision of hope.

“I think Faulkner meant that, somewhere in the pages of these realistic novels and poems that tell the truth about the horrors in our modern world, we have to see evidence that, occasionally, men and women are capable, simultaneously, of intelligence and compassion and self-sacrifice,” Raymond said. “If we can find that in literature, then literature will uplift us.

“It still gives us a vision of the nightmare, but it gives us hope for an American dream or for a European dream that is not a vision of despair,” he explained.

Learn more about Raymond’s book and his experiences in Kosovo at http://reflectionsonKosovo.wordpress.com, or visit http://www.msstate.edu to discover more about MSU.