Old Morrison 110
300 North Broadway
Lexington, KY 40508-1797
Phone: (859) 281-3504
e-mail James Wright
“I enjoy speaking with and learning from students from all over the world.”
James Wright looked around Old Morrison, the stately Greek Revival building that sits at the heart of Transylvania’s campus, and said, “My relative designed this.”
Turns out Wright is related to Gideon Shryock, the famous frontier architect who designed Old Morrison early in the nineteenth century. Construction of the building was completed in 1834, under the supervision of Henry Clay. Students of Kentucky history may even note that Wright bears an uncanny resemblance to Shryock.
A sense of feeling “home” is one of several reasons Wright is delighted to be at Transylvania. After traveling extensively and living abroad for a number of years, he is happy to be settled in his home state working with students who may be experiencing a sense of unease in an unfamiliar environment, just as he initially did as a teacher in Japan and a Fulbright scholar in Malaysia.
Wright teaches First-Year Seminar and English as a Second Language to international students at Transylvania. “I want to create a program for each individual student that connects them to all the services that will help propel them toward their academic goals,” he explained.
In addition, Wright is eager to encourage an ongoing conversation among the American students and the international students to build mutual understanding across cultures. “It’s so important, particularly for students who are going to study abroad, to have some experience talking about important world issues and working their way toward a sense of global responsibility.”
As a poet, Wright’s descriptions of his own experiences abroad are sometimes lyrical. While in Malaysia, he taught creative writing—in English—at a high school in a predominantly Muslim area of the country. The rhythms of the day were determined by the prayer schedule. ”Above the entrance to the school’s gymnasium there was a saying, ‘Time is perfect.’ For me, being there reinvented time entirely.”
Wright was also researching a form of traditional Malay poetry—the pantun—that English writers have borrowed (the pantoum). “It’s one of the most beautiful forms. It repeats a lot. Again, there’s that idea of disrupting time that’s almost dream-like.”
His intoxication with the culture and its entrancing rhythms was interrupted by an angry controversy over teaching school subjects in English. “Many of the native Malays were concerned that using English as the medium to teach math and science was damaging to the cultural identity. It’s a post-colonial state—the British ruled there for years—so it’s a really touchy subject.
“While I was there, 7,000 citizens from the state in which I lived boarded buses and drove six hours to the capital city to shut down Main Street and protest English medium education. And there I was, the English teacher from the Fulbright program. I had some interesting and tense conversations with people about education in English.”
Fortunately, Wright found a way to deftly address the political storm. He was a friend with a former Malay literary laureate, Muhammad Haji Salleh, who had earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Michigan. Dr. Salleh was teaching on the west coast of Malaysia about six hours from Wright. Deeply concerned about his situation, Wright sent him an email and the two eventually hatched a plan.
As one of Malaysia’s finest poets and a recognized figure in the Malay cultural revolution—as someone who was actively trying to revive the teaching of Malay literature—Dr. Salleh was an authentic voice for both the importance of preserving the original language and the value of English education. He eventually came to Wright’s school and spent a day talking to the students about Malay history and the ancient legends important to Malay culture. “He also read some of his poems published in English. He talked about how important it is to be able to converse in more than one language.”
Preserving the language and history of your forbears. Embracing a new language and culture. Both are critical for students in our new global community if they hope to make meaningful contributions to the world’s most important conversations. And, perhaps by pausing long enough to recognize the various rhythms of the day, we can join our neighbors in contemplating the best way forward.
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