Category : Me

Sent to my students before the last day of class

What happens next?

I think this is where I am supposed to insert some cliché about following your dreams and the world being your oyster (or if you are a fan of Friends, your lobster). But I am not going to do that. One, because that is definitely not my style, and more importantly, because I am not going to risk upsetting Zinsser’s ghost.

Instead, I am going to tell you a few things I know, comment on many things I have forgotten and, in the end, explain a few choices I made.

I don’t remember a single professor of mine from my undergrad studies. I began as a journalism major at West Virginia University, switched to an education major because I didn’t like following the rules in journalism classes and then switched again to an English degree which I finished up at SUNY-Buffalo.

I remember a few details about a couple of my classes.

My first ever undergrad class was a Logic class. I was the only freshman in the class and I remember doing well.

But that was quickly balanced out by the F I received in a Shakespeare class that I simply stopped going to.

I remember one paper I wrote. The comments on the essay examining Iran Contra received a B+ with this comment: “This is the best paper I have seen in many years. But I disagree with everything you say.”

I remember one class that I dropped after only a few sessions. It was a Feminist Literature class and I was the only male in the class. I was quickly informed that I would represent Everyman and that all things that the literature accused men of, I would be blamed for.

And there was one professor who gave me a book. The Red and The Black. I never read it.

I don’t know the name of a single professor I had while pursuing my B.A. I can’t even remember their faces, or perhaps I attended a Charlie Brown school and none of the teachers had faces and never said a coherent sentence.

But some of those memories give me reason to teach the way I do.

When students miss class, I try to reach out. Perhaps if someone had done that for me, I would have returned to class and done well.

I frequently comment that your paper is judged by the quality of the writing, not whether I agree with it.

I try to be inclusionary when I talk about your dream woman, man or platypus.

As to whether I am as cool as a Charlie Brown teacher, I have no idea. However, one day I would like to learn to dance as well as Snoopy does.

I do remember a lot from the semester when I was an R.A.

I remember the group of freshmen who carried a half-keg up four flights of stairs right in front of a group of R.A.s. The students did not enjoy dumping that beer.

I remember giving advice to some of the guys on my floor who liked to party, encouraging them to enjoy themselves but to take a few precautions so I could claim that I knew nothing about it.

I remember being woken up around 4 am during Finals Week as one of the guys on my floor told me his room had been broken into.

And I remember being called to interrupt and hopefully stop a guy from committing suicide. The ambulance eventually arrived, and they took him in for psychiatric testing.

If I pressed myself, I could probably come up with a few more academic things that I remembered, but in reality, they have just blended into my past.

And that is why I have no words of wisdom for you. I have no reason to believe that anything I said or did this semester will be remembered past the near future. And I am totally fine with that. I have done my job and you have done yours.

You are going to do what you are going to do.

And so, I am not going to insult you by thinking that any advice I give is worth remembering. Instead, I will explain the choice I made at the beginning of the semester, or rather the series of choices.

For those of you who were in class on Day One, you may recall that on the PowerPoint I presented that included crucial information regarding the class including my favorite Disney Princess, there was a +1 in a large red circle. Not a single student asked about that and so I decided not to say anything.

I do have a personal policy, which I believe is worth sharing, related to +1. Each day I try to do something or learn something that makes me better at being me. Every day I try to +1. However,

I decided to challenge myself to “show” that, instead of “telling” it.

But there is also something I did not write on the PowerPoint, and this, which I share with you now, is perhaps as close as I will come to giving you advice.

I wanted you to walk into the classroom and see the following on the board: “I hope that this is the worst class that you ever have.”

I was going to ask you to dissect the sentence and try to figure out what I meant. I chickened out.

But now, I am happy to say it.

I hope that my class is the worst class that you ever have.

I hope that every teacher, professor and mentor is better than me.

I hope that you learn more in every class than you ever did in mine.

Now as you parse those three sentences, for you certainly know that I would not leave you with a simple farewell, I realized I do have one more thing to add to this.

I have a request.

Many of you have told me that you plan on being a teacher, or an astrophysicist, a nurse, or a police officer. Those are all noble professions, but I ask that you make one small change to your goals.

In front of the name of your profession, please add the word great.

Make it your goal to be a great teacher, or a great astrophysicist, a great nurse, or a great police officer.

The world needs more of those.

And if you do not accomplish that goal, I promise you, I will not be disappointed.

But I will be disappointed if you don’t try.

-written by K.A. MacDonald, December 8 – 12, 2018

My Essay for Assignment #1

I teach Composition 101 at UMass Boston. One of my students asked when they would see some of my writing, so I decided to write my answer to their Assignment #1 prompt.

Here is the prompt:

In this narrative-style essay, you will reflect on your own history as a writer, a reader or a speaker. I want you to think back to one or two important moments in your life regarding writing or reading.

• What has occurred in your life that has changed the way you think about and experience writing, reading or speaking?
• How has this event affected your experience with writing, reading, or speaking?
• What did you learn from this experience that would be appropriate to share with others?
• Why does this event stand out over all others?

Tell the reader a high-quality, meaningful story in the form of a narrative essay that provides the reader something to think about regarding your experience with writing, reading, or speaking.

And here is my essay:

Why do I want you to read?

There are two answers to that question. There is the obvious answer that involves the drama of whether Harry will hook up with Hermione, whether Emma Bovary will listen to the speeches given at the agricultural fair while she sits next to a man who doesn’t love her or whether you make the connections between Nabokov’s Lolita and the song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police.
Those adventures are without compare. Movies don’t do them justice. It truly is a case of you have to be there.

But then there is the other answer. The one that sometimes keeps me up at night, knowing that I am not doing enough to convince people that reading is beneficial.

My day starts with a quick glance at email, and if there are no fires to put out, I quickly move on to Reddit where I see whether there are literal fires around the world, as well as looking at political cartoons, cats riding vacuums and discussions over what pictures qualify as not safe for work. I then move on to The New York Times and The Guardian to read quality reporting and opinion pieces that help me make better sense of the current political scene.

I acknowledge I create my own reality. My zeitgeist is at least partially pre-fabricated by my choices. But those choices are mine and have been shaped by time and experience. Throughout the day I add in message boards like the Straight Dope where hidden underneath lazy ad hominem attacks (which I am getting better at recognizing) there is great debate going on. I listen to podcasts about baseball and cultural icons and science and literature. I watch TEDx videos that discuss procrastination while I should be doing something else.

But, people who don’t read don’t share those experiences. Sure, non-readers can listen to podcasts and watch YouTube but, be honest, is it likely that someone who shirks reading is listening to podcasts about the fine points of the effect of skin color on the roles that actors are offered in Hollywood? Based on my experience, the answer is no.
Because I read, for pleasure, for work, and because I am addicted, I believe that I can make better sense of this world. When I read something I find questionable, I purposely go seek out multiple sources and usually find that the facts lie somewhere in the middle. When a political ad comes on tv, I listen carefully to the words that are said, and more importantly the words that are not said. Very simply, because I read, I don’t have to depend on other people to tell me the truth. Because they often won’t.

The people I know who don’t read, seldom say that their life is great. Or even very good. Oftentimes, the people who brag about not reading also complain about how life isn’t fair. Now this is not an infomercial about how if you read 45 minutes a day you will become rich. The people who make offers like that are not aiming for critical readers and thinkers. They are aiming for victims who will accept what they are told.

And why not? If one has a skill and can improve their own life by taking advantage of others who willingly submit, why wouldn’t they? I truly hope that I don’t do that. I hope that as a result of my reading I understand the effect that exploitation and bullying have, not just on the people I know, but on the people around the world and since the history of the spoken word.

Because I read, I know that I live a better life. My childhood is sadly not different enough to be unique, but suffice it to say, I could come up with myriad excuses as to why I would not be successful and would not be a living a life that I very gladly say is great. But instead, I fell in love with reading from a very early age, at first encouraged by others, but soon after, as an escape and a refuge from the reality of my childhood.

At any point I could have stopped and been mad at the world, but instead I let Dr. Seuss delight me (he still does), and Stephen King scare me (he still does). And the moment that the Harry Potter-verse reached my awareness, I was onboard. I was at Walmart at midnight for the release of the last two books, surrounded by others who wanted to devour every word, and yet never wanting to see the words The End.

But I have also taught a number of students in America and in Tanzania who take pride in the fact that they don’t read. And that makes me sad. Everyone has brilliant thoughts to share with this world. But without reading and engaging in critical thinking and increasing one’s vocabulary, instead by allowing others to dissect discussions for you and tell you that this time history will not repeat itself and insisting that if a man claims he is rich, he is a great businessman and leader regardless of his own personal history, of which there are many books written, those thoughts are never going to shine as bright as they otherwise might. And that hurts the world.

I do not yet have the ability to physically travel to a planet that is inhabited by a solitary lamplighter, but oh, how I long for that opportunity. And there are so many people in this world, who I know would, given the chance, love to join me. Although there is a movie that tells you what to see, without having that book in my hand, and my thoughts which are shaped and elevated by reading the words of wise women and men, along with ignorant fools who I am able to recognize, I know that we simply will not make that journey together.

-written by K.A. MacDonald, September 29, 2018

Zanzibar International Film Festival – Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Fuga (Brazil) – An animated short about an escaped prison in Egypt 50 BC. As he struggles across the desert he embarks on a journey of a lifetime. If I knew anything about Egyptian mythology, I am guessing I would have understood the symbolism of the things he saw. 7/10

Kaleidoscope (Kenya) – A haunting piece where a woman in a bad relationship ends up in an inescapable room. I did not understand the ending, but the movie was sufficiently haunting. 6/10

Give a Man a Mask and He Will Tell You the Truth (Zimbabwe) – Here is my second 10/10 of the festival. How do you tell the story of men having sex with men, something that is illegal in Zimbabwe? You flip filmmaking upside down and make sure that things are beautifully out of focus, so you can hear the voices when the identities are protected. The filmmaker also used beautiful masks – to represent the mask the men must wear, lest society discover who they are – in a technically outstanding documentary. 10/10

Black Head Cow (Tanzania/UK) – I have to go based on what I saw, not on what the filmmakers said about the film after I saw it…Dealing with the sensitive issue of young women being married off early and not being allowed to go to school, this film did a nice job of setting up the dilemma for the audience to ponder. There were no answers given – and that may be the best way to handle this. 7/10

Cream (South Africa) – This short film about racial identity goes a bit overboard. There is no question the attempted lightening of skin happened. There is no question that people have problems with how police handle race. There is no question that there are messed up families. To accomplish throwing everything together there was a lot of forced pontificating. 5/10

The Secret of Happiness (Rwanda) – There was no ice cream, no elephants, no giraffes and no cats in the movie, so I am not sure it was my secret of happiness. This is another film that looks at questionable traditions, in this case the requirement for young women to stretch their labia to please one’s husband. The topic certainly needs to be discussed, but this film isn’t the best path to that discussion. 6/10

Cheusi Dawa (Tanzania) – This is a weak after school special with bad translations. If only it were as simple to turn your life around as it is in this movie…one sister fails school but after a few months gets her dream job because she is a focused hard studier and the other sister has to choose her career or her man. Coincidentally, her hero is available to talk to her. 4/10

Binti Zanzibar (Tanzania) – Author’s Note: I know at least one person in this film. I have tried to not let that raise my film rating too much. This film was a laugh fest. Dealing with the issue of a young woman missing out on education and being forced to marry (see Black Head Cow above), this movie does it completely wrong. The filmmakers were there and listened to all the laughter (at the movie, not with the movie) – and then tried to talk about how it was a serious subject. Bad ‘B’ movie. 1/10

Thank You for the Rain – (UK/Kenya) – This one was very close to also getting a 10. This movie is about a Kenyan farmer who tries to get his community to take climate change seriously as his village suffers from devastating droughts followed by even worse floods. He then gets the opportunity, as people in Europe hear of what he is doing, to go speak at the Paris Climate Change Conference. The farmer himself films parts of the film and it is very well done. But it could have been a little better. 9/10

Zanzibar International Film Festival – Thursday, July 13, 2017

Alaksha (India) – They say to write what you know…and it appears that as digital cameras become ubiquitous, people write about cameras. In this case, the photographer bought a memory card with a murder video on it and he looks to return the camera to the victim’s family. The movie was okay. There was nothing wrong with it, but nothing special about it either. 6/10

As We See It (South Africa) – Rumors about the magical properties of the bodies of people with albinism are still strong in parts of Africa. This movie is about three (unrelated) generations of South Africans who have albinism that have found schools and jobs where they are treated as people with full rights instead of as curiosities. A well-done documentary that can help people understand the values of individuals. 8/10

Guangzhou Dream Factory (USA) – Africans go to Guangzhou, China, to make it big in business. But there are pitfalls and difficulties with obtaining visas and being treated fairly. Although one wants to sympathize with the people in the film, there is an element of “now you know some of the difficulties that foreigners who come to Africa deal with.” 6/10

Keepers of the Game (USA) – We were invited to this film as it was presented in part by the US Embassy in Dar. After the movie, the director spoke and told the audience that the movie was played on ABC primetime recently. And that is exactly what this movie is, a team of Native American teenage girls fight for their right to play the traditionally men’s game of lacrosse and the trials and tribulations of their season. The director took pride in the fact that people thought the story was fictional – everything fell in place too perfectly for me to appreciate the movie. 5/10

Uhuru (UK/Tanzania) – This is the first 10/10 movie of the festival. This movie is a collection of raw and real interviews with people who struggle, either personally, or through a personal connection, with disability in Tanzania. There is no narrator telling you how to feel or explaining what people mean, instead we hear the people speak for themselves. This movie is an excellent showing of the reality of disability. A must-watch. 10/10

Zanzibar Film Festival – Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dent de lleo (Spain) – A young girl blows a dandelion in to the air and dreams about the people and lands that the dandelion sees. A well done peaceful movie that reminds us of the possibilities that we should all dream about. 8/10

Roger (Spain) – This stop-action, claymation, James Bond-influenced movie is fun. Disfigured clay character Roger Bowtie is thrown aside and replaced. After fighting depression, he takes advantage of the workshop where he was thrown and remakes himself. A definite see. 9/10

Indulge Me (Kenya) – He tells us why he was unhappy and how their relationship fell apart. And at the end, we have the necessary surprise ending. It is not the most original, but it does its job well enough. 6/10

Tunu na Kito (Tanzania) – This film has too many problems. The animation rendering was not complete. The sound, instead of sounding like fish under water, sounds like a couple of people in an echo filled hallway. And there were no captions, so I had to go just on action and my small Swahili vocabulary. Incomplete. Please rework and resubmit.

Jeshi la Mashujaa (Tanzania) – This is another Tanzanian animation without captions. From what I can tell a boy doesn’t eat his vegetables and the bacteria attack him…until the fruits and vegetables save him. This is the type of short that would be shown on Saturday morning between violent cartoons to let the network believe that they are educational. 2/10

Edem Saved Me (Ghana) – This paper cut animation of folktale works well. Put in to a difficult situation, one character must retrieve the valuable jewel from far away. As his journey becomes more difficult his best friend arrives with help. If we choose to use television to educate the children, this is how we should be teaching about our culture. 7/10

Purpose (Nigeria) – I think this was a rap video. Or rather a spoken poem set to pictures. I can’t say that I liked it, although there was nothing inherently wrong with it. It just wasn’t for me. 5/10

TIS (France) – A piece of paper gains self-awareness and grows as a “person.” This short was beautifully produced (although the trees got a little scary in places) and is a must see. 9/10

Voice from 10,000 Miles (Australia) – How does one deal with learning that a loved one was killed in a terrorist attack when you are 10,000 miles away? This piece makes you think. 7/10

Free Basics (India) – A rural village gets “modern digital” and the world is a better place…or at least that is the expectation. But it turns out that the online world is full of seedy characters too. A fun take on the “future”. 7/10

Kipawa (USA) – This was an infomercial. And I did not buy, donate, or join. 4/10

A Man’s Story (Canada) – When you are born in a violent household, violence may be all you know. But there comes a time when it must end. 6/10

The Photograph (Tanzania) – The lighting and camera work was very good. The fight sequences lacked authenticity and the story was not completely clear. Having spoken to members of the film crew, I believe that there is great stuff in the future for this local film company. 6/10

Lodgers (Nigeria) – Just because you are highly skilled in your country doesn’t mean that going to work in another country is going to be easy. Although some of the humor is repetitive, there were definitely a few laugh out loud moments. 7/10

Blaxploitation (Italy) – I liked the second half of this movie much better as we hear from a number of Afro-Italian actors that struggle to make it in Italian cinema. I would have liked to have heard from non-minority Italian actors to see how different the experiences and struggles are. 7/10

Keeping the Beat (UK) – I don’t like documentaries where the narrator is a foreigner talking how their three weeks in an exotic location was life changing. There were also enough technical issues to be distracting. But I did learn a few things about the Zanzibar music scene. 4/10

Arts of the Monsoon (USA) – Oman and Zanzibar share a history and this movie explores the fashion, music, architecture, and artwork that ties the two together. A very nice piece with the added benefit of having a few people that we know in it. 8/10

Zanzibar International Film Festival – Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bastien (Brazil) – This is a film that I failed to understand. A seemingly good person is accused of committing a wrong, his little brother is tortured, the grandmother hears voices, and bad things happen. But why? I even ended up watching part of the film a second time, but still I could not connect the dots. 2/10

Nectar (Uganda) – I enjoyed this movie a lot. A man wants to kill his wife and he battles the voice of his conscience to find a fool proof way to do it. The viewer hears his thoughts and see why he hates her. Although I am not condoning killing, this movie is a somewhat whimsical take on the struggles one has when trying to solve a seemingly insolvable problem. And of course, the ending is not fully expected. 9/10

Hair That Moves (South Africa) – This is an after school special type of movie with a young girl who dreams of being like her idol. She believes that the secret is flowing hair. But this showing of the movie had bad sound, bad color, bad saturation, etc…The production distracted so much that nothing else mattered. 2/10

Sacred Waters (Rwanda) – It is great to see a movie that discusses African women’s sexuality, in this case female ejaculation. We heard from one of the filmmakers that the movie was banned in Rwanda for being too graphic (it wasn’t). The movie maker avoided being explicit, but this serves to continue to keep the topic mostly hidden with the movie showing people’s hesitancy to speak openly and embrace the human body. People need to make movies like this that push the boundaries. 7/10

Ishyaka, The Will to Live (Rwanda) – Hutus and Tutsis come together to understand the 1994 genocide that killed over a million people. This movie looks toward the future and wants to encourage people to find it in their hearts to forgive things that happened in the past. But they also want to make sure that people never forget what happened. This film needs to be seen. 9/10

Uprize! (South Africa) – This film looks back to the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Hearing the voices of the people who were there makes this a powerful piece, but many of the people were hard to understand. This film would have benefitted from captions throughout the entire film. 6/10

Yaadikoone (France) –A boy breaks his grandmother’s roof before the rainy season begins. No one has money to fix the roof, but Yaadikoone is named after a Robin Hood figure. Somehow things happen, but once again I am not able to figure how…or why. 2/10

Zanzibar Film Festival – Monday, July 10

Six by Six (South Africa) – Working in an overnight morgue requires a fine blend of seriousness and dark humor. This documentary accomplishes that without overplaying either side. A nice portrayal of real people doing a real job that many could never fathom doing. 8/10

The Last Breath (Uganda) – The premise is nice; a dying mother speaks lasting words in to a balloon for a daughter to listen to after her death. The film has some technical issues but overall it is adequate. It could have been much better, but it also could have been worse. 5/10

Rabidity (Iran) – This movie is about deceit. The obvious deceit that the plot centers around and then a very unexpected pile of deceit in the last ten minutes. Action, love, lies, lies and lies. Overall, I was pleased and am looking forward to seeing more feature length Iranian action dramas. 7/10

Block 5 (South Africa) – A depressing documentary about people without water and the issues they deal with while trying to secure water. However, one can not hold the victims blameless as they continue to make choices that further their own despair. 6/10

The Longest Race (Spain) – A very nice documentary on the empowerment of Kenyan and Ethiopian women through athletics. The movie highlights some of the greatest women runners in the world who have fought against social norms to become economic powerhouses in their communities. The first movie of the festival that we have seen that reminds me of all of the greatness that there is in Africa. 9/10

Wallay (Burkina Faso/Swiss) – This 82 minute movie should have been 32. A European boy does bad and is sent to live in a Burkina Faso village. His attitude towards work and responsibility need to be overcome by learning the value of family. The premise is tried and true, but in this case, the movie just isn’t worth the time. 3/10

Zanzibar International Film Festival – Sunday, July 9, 2017

Azaad (India, 2016) – A very well-done movie with a quality story and cinematography. The plot points that revolve around politics, journalism, free speech, and family issues come together nicely about 80% of the way through the film. 8/10

The Goldfish Who Swam Out of the Fishbowl (India, 2016) – This was not about goldfish. This movie had too many open plot lines and coincidences that were never satisfactorily explained. Based on some of the “creative” camera work (including shots with spots on the lens), I think the creators were trying to do something big, and in their heads, it all probably made sense, but I left the movie wondering where the rest of the story was. 4/10

Eleven Percent (South Africa/Democratic Republic of Congo) – This documentary about the 2006 security guard strike in South Africa tells the story of one refugee worker who crossed the picket line and was killed. There were too many mistakes in the movie including captions in the lower third left unfinished where it referred to a character as “ -Name- “, and during the credits the list of characters had a “fill in last names” text in there, making me feel as though this was not the actual final cut. And honestly, the story was not very compelling. 3/10

Santa Klaus Dark Side (Reunion Island, 2016) – In a beautiful country, a man with no money takes a rooster and two hens in to town to sell them to buy his daughter a Christmas gift. But nobody has money and through a bit of bad luck, followed by some humorous good luck, the story concludes, not in the most expected way, but I left satisfied. Good attention to detail throughout the film makes this one worthy of seeing twice to catch what you missed the first time. 8/10

Woven (USA, 2016) – A story about an Ethiopian family in New York who faces tragedy and the need to work together to overcome their grief. There is a complicated relationship between all ten or so main characters that is too convenient to be accepted. My favorite part involves the main character running through the streets looking like a beautiful princess. 6/10


A few weeks ago I did family portraits for some of our friends. We went to Forodhani Gardens for the photo shoot as the sun was starting to set. The Garden was filled with people, and when people saw some white guy taking serious photos (telling people where to sit and stand, ordering the family around, kneeling down, etc.) the chattering began. People wondered who the white guy with the camera was, and why this family was special…

Royal Cliff Zanzibar

Our friend (and Angi’s former Swahili teacher) Alwiya introduced us to a relative of hers who owns a resort here in Zanzibar. Alwiya asked if I would help her relative (Eddy) improve the website and brochure of the website, and I happily agreed.

Here are a few photos from a little over a week ago.