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Creative in isolation: A UNC professor teaches from a McDonald's parking lot in W.Va.

matt owain.jpg
Matt Randal O’Wain is a professor in the English and comparative literature department. Photo courtesy of Matt Randal O'Wain.

Three times a week, UNC professor Matt Randal O'Wain makes the 25-minute trek from his Appalachian cabin to a McDonald's parking lot.

Apart from a visitor center parking lot, it’s the only place he can get Wi-Fi.

He climbs into the back seat of his truck, flips open his laptop and teaches his writing classes.

“It's actually not as terrible as it might sound,” he said.

For spring break this year, O’Wain, a professor in the department of English and comparative literature, and his wife Mesha Maren, a Duke professor and former UNC Kenan visiting writer, traveled from their Durham home to their farm in West Virginia, as they typically do when classes aren’t in session.

The couple brought their teaching materials with them, he said, and he’s thankful they did. Classes were moved online and West Virginia enacted a statewide stay-at-home order.

Now, he and Maren are effectively stranded on their mountaintop plot of land, from which one can look out far enough to see Virginia, O’Wain said.

As UNC cancels in-person classes for the rest of the semester, instructors have had to adapt their syllabi to suit virtual instruction. O’Wain said he’s had to completely rethink how he’ll achieve his teaching goals and learning outcomes. He said he wound up revising his syllabus two or three times before landing on one that felt right.

Unlike many professors, O’Wain has decided to forego Zoom lectures. Instead, his students interact in forums on Sakai, he said.

“It's slower than a workshop would be, but it's a better approximation of that intimacy that I'm after than Zoom could ever offer,” he said. “Because 18 people all talking at once about one piece of writing on Zoom seems like an impossibility, or at least very confusing.”

First-year Meg Bishop is enrolled in O’Wain’s Introduction to Creative Nonfiction course this semester. When the class was meeting on campus, she said, she found O’Wain’s classroom environment distinctively inclusive – she said this hasn’t changed, even though she and her classmates no longer convene in person.

“He’s even opened a forum where if people just want to talk about how the whole quarantine situation has affected their mental health, they can talk about it with others,” Bishop said. “So, he’s done a really good job, but you know, it’s different because it kind of has to be. There’s no way to replace face-to-face communication.”

O’Wain said engagement and community building are essential to the way he runs his classroom. He and his students have worked all semester to build rapport, he said. And now that they can’t meet, it’s harder to practice the vulnerability that comes with sharing their writing.

“We need to be together, honestly, in order to really create the atmosphere that's necessary for learning how to not only get better at writing, but also to learn how to talk to one another about the strengths and weaknesses of one's own creative work,” he said. “And so, this is terrible for my class.”

In spite of the struggles that accompany revising syllabi and sitting in parking lots, O’Wain said the self-isolation has been freeing, in a way. He’s found ample time to work on what will be his first novel and third book.

Professor Daniel Wallace, director of UNC’s creative writing program and author of the novel “Big Fish,” said he’s very familiar with O’Wain’s written work. He said many writers try to perfect either emotion or intelligence.

“I think his gift is to be able to do both at the same time," Wallace said.

After writing in the mornings, O’Wain said he does yard work in the afternoons. At night, he reads. Soon, he’ll start to refurbish a clawfoot bathtub.

O’Wain said that prior to this long stretch of staying home, he hadn’t realized how much time he spends out in the world, away from sitting and being with himself. He said his task-oriented nature has rendered this self-quarantine period perfect for him.

One thing his students can do to help him out, O’Wain said with a laugh, is to engage in the forums. He added that his students have been wonderful.

“I’m always impressed by Carolina students because you're all so engaged and smart, you know?” he said. “But what I've seen more than anything is a wonderful level of compassion, and also, like, agility – a crazy ability to go with the punches. So, I appreciate that. And that's what helps me, is that sort of engagement."

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After the initial two weeks of adjusting to online classes, he said, his workload has dropped back down to its usual level. But there’s one difference.

He can no longer walk into a classroom filled with his students.

“I miss being able to go see my people every Monday and Wednesday, you know?" he said.