Features

Fiction teacher Baumer GS draws inspiration from ‘weirdness’

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2011

In most courses — even at Brown — it would have come as a bit of a shock for an instructor to announce that for the first 60 minutes of a seminar, no one was allowed to speak or leave the room.

But not one of the students in Mark Baumer’s GS fiction writing workshop seemed particularly fazed by Baumer’s proclamation after he wrote, in uneven, capital letters, “The art of subtle weirdness” on the board of his classroom in the Rockefeller Library Monday evening.

“He acts like that every day,” explained Ana Almeida ’12, a student in the class, after the hour of silence. The political science concentrator had divided her quiet time between napping and doodling. Other students passed notes, read from textbooks, meditated and covered their bodies in sheets of newsprint. For several minutes, paper airplanes marked with comments and messages flew through the air.

“You never know what to expect, obviously,” said Ryan Provencher ’12, a mathematical physics concentrator sitting next to Almeida. “I mean, this is unlike any class.”

Baumer himself is unlike any other instructor.

Since graduating from Wheaton College in Massachusetts in 2006, where he majored in English and was a designated hitter on the baseball team, Baumer has hitchhiked from Maine to California, walked across the country on foot and eaten pizza every day for a three-month stretch. He blogged about these feats, and others, and he continues to post videos and short pieces of prose about his life in Providence as a graduate student in Brown’s prestigious Program in Literary Arts.

“I’m really big on just doing things,” he explained, sitting beside a life-size but headless pink mannequin that happened to be in his office.

For example, on the first day of class this semester, he wore a white, full-body, hazmat-style suit to class. Perhaps as a result, half of the 40 students who shopped the first class failed to show up the following week.

Baumer said he often takes on unconventional tasks or intentionally breaks social norms to spark creative ideas for his blogs and more formal writing.

“There’s nothing more uninspiring than just staring at a blank Word document,” he said. “A lot of times when I can’t think of anything to write about, I’ll just do something.”

Both this semester and last fall, Baumer encouraged the students in his fiction workshops to take similarly experimental and unconventional steps to improve their writing.

“Mark takes a different tact than most professors,” said Kelsey Shimamoto ’13, who took Baumer’s class last fall. She said students wrote profusely and explored new literature styles through reading assignments like Urs Alleman’s “Babyfucker,” but that the class never used the conventional method of collectively critiquing students’ work. “We had almost no criticism for the entire course.”

Instead, Baumer gave his students experiments and assignments that taught them how to think differently and expand their minds to help them come up with material.

“I think most people in that class didn’t need to be taught how to write. … Anyone can write a story,” Shimamoto offered. Instead, Baumer’s class was about “learning how to write something interesting.”

Nick Gomez-Hall ’13 was enrolled in Baumer’s class in the fall and said he thought it was “the most consuming, stimulating course that I’ve taken at Brown.” Gomez-Hall insists that the more novel assignments he received — like creating a diversion as a class so someone could sneak pizzas past a door guard into their classroom at the Rockefeller Library — were exercises in drawing meaning out of everyday things. During other class periods, Baumer instructed his students to take a two-hour walk, convince a stranger in the library to give them a dollar and walk from the basement to the second floor of the Rock with their eyes closed.

But not all students are fans of Baumer’s unconventional teaching.

“I imagine that some people wish there was more instruction — and I do as well — but I can understand why there isn’t,” said Edward Friedman ’14, a prospective literary arts concentrator currently in the course. “I can definitely understand why people wouldn’t like it.”

After rarely finding the writing workshops he took as a student useful, Baumer said he thought it would be better to “abandon that atmosphere” of conventional critique and instead give his students a safe space to try on new methods and ideas.

“It’s tough for the students,” Baumer said, because they end up needing to take more initiative and independence in their writing. “It’s just better for me to create something different.”

Baumer still gives his students some feedback, and he spent the second half of Monday’s class holding individual conversations with each student about the writing he or she had turned in while the rest of the group responded to short writing prompts generated by other students.

Sarah Marion ‘12.5 — a visual arts concentrator — said she was impressed by the level of encouragement he gave during her individual conference.

“You can tell that he really cares about his students,” she said, adding that Baumer had referenced specific sentences she had written weeks earlier during their conversation.

Baumer’s course is one of four sections of  LITR 0110A: “Fiction I” workshop being offered this semester, all of which are taught by master of fine arts candidates.

“Each 0110 class is taught differently and very much based on the instructor,” wrote Brian Evenson, director of the literary arts program, in an email to The Herald. “Considering the varied interests and approaches of Brown’s undergraduate writers, we find that students tend to be able to find instructors well suited to helping them grow as writers, as well as instructors to challenge their unexamined assumptions about what writing is or can be.”

Natasha Katoni ’12, a student in Baumer’s class, said her roommate is in a different Fiction I section, and the two classes are “totally different.” Because Baumer is graduating this May, and since every section of Fiction I has its own structure and syllabus, Brown may never see another class quite like Baumer’s.

Baumer said he is “looking forward to just working a job for a year” and taking a break from academic writing and teaching. He might take a boat down the Mississippi, hit a golf ball from Texas into South America or spend some time traveling through Antarctica after graduation. While Baumer said he still does not know what he wants to do over the next few years, he is sure he will not go into academia.

“When I’m ready to wither and die, that’s when I’ll be a teacher,” he said. “I’m not ready to wither and die.”