Running while Singing Simon & Garfunkel: A Brief Interview with a Former Corporate Worker, Kara Taczak
– interviewed by Blake Sanz
[Note: Blake Sanz is interviewing all writing program faculty. Prior to each interview, Blake asks his colleague to select one of 25 items from a list of artifacts and talk about how they'd use it in teaching. –ed.]
From the list, Kara Taczak chose any essay from Joan Didion's The White Album
In a prior life, Kara Taczak worked for Georgia-Pacific. She had a cubicle in their downtown Atlanta office that she shared with a few older women. Most days, she'd crunch numbers having to do with something called non-compliance. The way she tells this story, it's clear there's no need to ask her how she felt about it. "It was a no brainer job. You put stuff into a computer, you generate an Excel spreadsheet, and it generates the numbers. I got bored pretty quickly." Unsurprisingly, she didn't stay long. For someone with Kara's critical mind, the numbers-crunching biz wasn't going to cut it. "I didn't want to sit in a pod and listen to the women complain."
She took that job just after she'd sped through a Masters degree, in a time when she wasn't quite ready to dive into a PhD program just yet. If anything, the experience gave her a gauge against which she could mark her later march through academia with a steady dose of reality to keep her grounded.
The corporate route wasn't the only fork in the road for Kara. There was also an early dalliance with creative writing as an undergrad in Ohio. "Luckily for the world," she says, "that didn't happen. I really wanted to be a rhyming poet. And I mean, rhyming in that I wanted to rhyme works like "diva" with "feevah."
But more than a fear of being known as DJ Kara the Poet, it was a dissociation with the trends of the creative writers she knew that led her into another track. "I tended to resist my fellow creative writers because I felt like they represented a specific type of person, and a very specific stereotype, and I didn't want to fulfill that stereotype. And so I did my best to resist it and reject it."
In the end, Kara went on to get a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Florida State, where she studied under Kathy Yancey, and finished a dissertation on reflection and transfer in the first-year writing classroom. Her job here at DU came right on the heels of finishing that degree.
Kara chose Any Essay from Joan Didion's White Album, and we spoke for a while about it as a possible tool in the classroom. "The book as a whole is a really good insight into who she is, both as a person and as a writer. I read her as an undergrad in a nonfiction class, and I wanted to be just like her." Aside from that admiration for Didion as a person, Kara sees much to admire in her writing, too. "She's such a great storyteller. She weaves in her own ideologies without you realizing she's doing it."
She singled out the title essay as one that seemed especially ripe for use in the classroom. She sees "White Album" as most emblematic of Didion's style, and one that might be ripe for a kind of imitation assignment in which students attempt to mimic that style in their own autobiographical narrative situating a self inside a literate society. She's quick to point that she wouldn't be after just a literacy narrative: "So, not a literary journey, because those all get to be the same—like, 'My mom read to me as a five year old'—but really getting to heart of, 'Okay, you're a literate person in this society. What does this mean? And can you tell that to me in a narrative form instead of an essay?'"
In describing what she'd hope they'd get from the assignment, Kara considered not only the insight they might have about themselves as literate people, but also something about the literal place they most connect to. Didion's White Album is as much a manifesto on California as it is about her life and her subjects, and Kara would like to see her students contemplate their own hometowns or home states in the same way.
This lead to a conversation about her own connections to home. I asked her specifically about Ohio, where she grew up, and she resisted the notion of that place as home. "I don't ever want to live in Ohio again," she said bluntly, laughing. When pushed, she mentioned how she felt that home was a relative term. "I don't look at Ohio as home, but I don't think of any other place that I've lived as home either. I've lived in Atlanta twice and I really like the area, but I don't think of it that way. I think home is wherever I am at the time, and if I'm surrounded by friends and family that I love and respect, and they do the same back, then that place is home."
To elaborate, she recounted a recent trip: "My brother and I drove to Florida for Christmas to visit my mom and dad. Driving there, we said, 'We're going home to Tallahassee. But driving back we were also saying that we were 'coming home.' So, I don't know. Ask me in 10 years. Right now, it's not like that for me."
Kara has tried to make Denver feel like home in that relative way by building communities around the interests she's had in other places. As a swimmer in college, she's always identified as an athlete. And these days, she's found herself in search of good running trails and running partners. And finding a running partner, she said, isn't as easy as you might think. Some people—like Kara—talk while they run, and others don't. Some enjoy listening, some don't.
"I'm definitely a chatter when I run," she explained. "Sometimes, in high school, I'd sing Simon & Garfunkel to my runners partners. My best friend and I used to run in Ohio, and it was a perfect union. She's a non-talker, so she'd just start the run by saying, 'Kara, I'm just going to listen, and you just talk to me.' She liked that. She liked me to just chat away and help her be distracted."
Aside from running friends, she's also found a sense of community through the Denver Church of Christ. She enjoys the camaraderie there among a relatively younger group of churchgoers, and has made a number of friends in her new hometown through it.
We talk then about taboos around religion in academia, and I mention a former teacher in the DU Writing Program who identified as Christian, and who designed a class in which students explored the rhetoric of religious versus scientific arguments about creation. I'm curious to know whether, in the same way that those teachers with an interest in, say, the Coalition for the Homeless might incorporate that interest into their classroom, does Kara ever imagine incorporating some intellectual notion of Christianity into her classes? "For myself, I keep religion separate from teaching. I think I'd be lying to say it doesn't influence who I am as a teacher. Still, I don't seek out opportunities to discuss it. But then, I wouldn't do that with running, or any other aspect of my identity, either. I try use examples of things I hope are relevant to them at the moment. So maybe, the Super Bowl. That's been a topic of conversation recently."
Though a number of different identities converge in Kara, it's her identity as a teacher that most defines her. She laughed as she told me how sometimes, when she goes out with her brother here in Denver, he has to call a time out on conversations about teaching. "I just always really wanted to be a professor. I wanted to know how to teach, and teach well," she explained. Spend an afternoon with Kara, and you'll likely see that more than running, more than her career as a swimmer, more than her prior incarnation as a corporate worker for Georgia-Pacific, it's teaching that drives her thinking.