Students enrolled in Writing in the D, a creative writing mini-course offered through the Residential College, spent a portion of their Valentine’s Day at the Detroit Institute of Arts drawing inspiration from Dutch photographer Corine Vermeulen’s exhibit, Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio.
The one-credit mini course is taught by Lolita Hernandez, a creative writing lecturer and a recipient of a Michigan Notable Book Award for her novel, “Making Callaloo in Detroit.” The course is offered to both University students and students from Detroit public high schools.
“The class is basically for U of M and Detroit high school students to write together,” Hernandez said. “So U of M students aren’t mentoring, sometimes I think the Detroit students are mentoring the U of M students.”
During Saturday’s class, students first viewed Vermeulen’s photographs of Detroiters in a DIA exhibit and then wrote three character sketches based on people in the photographs. The photos featured Detroiters at protests, schools, programs, urban farms and Vermeulen’s own studio.
The students typically meet on Saturdays in the UAW-Ford National Programs Center in Detroit, with occasional classroom sessions in East Quad Residence Hall. Their work includes writing character sketches from written prompts and still images, among other projects.
LSA senior Harleen Kaur said she has done a great deal of academic writing, and took the course because she wanted to do more creative writing before graduating.
“This class has been really great because it’s not just looking at novels or plays or different pieces of text but looking at what’s around you whether it be art or just environment and really being able to express your emotions creatively and sort of take that and make something new out of it,” she said.
Hernandez said the purpose of the class is for students to learn from each other.
“I’m hoping that U of M students learn something about people in Detroit,” she said. “The students (from Detroit) are an excellent source of information and also, some U of M students really have little contact with Detroit in a kind of intimate way, and this gives them that.
“As far as the DPS students,” she added, “I think it gives them a taste of college life, relating to college-level students, working as college people do which is different as you do in high school as you can well remember. It’s a little more independence and freedom and we also add them on CTools.”
LSA sophomore Justin Walker said the class interested him when he came across it in the course guide in part because he is from Detroit and travels home for the weekends.
“It’s honestly really fun for me because I was a DPS student, so it’s kind of interesting to see how people from different schools or different environments in general think in a way that I probably wouldn’t have when I was their age,” he said.
The idea of Writing in the D resulted from conversations between Hernandez and UAW Vice President James Settles Jr. about creating a scholarship for the University’s Semester in Detroit program in memory of General Gordon Baker Jr., a Detroit labor and community activist who was a supporter of the program.
The scholarship went live at the beginning of the Fall 2014 semester.
Walker said one of the concepts of the course is drawing inspiration from one’s surroundings.
“It’s kind of looking more at the people and things around you because there’s always this really cool story that is either there or that you can make just by watching people that you don’t really get from just making it up,” he said.
DPS student Bruce Johnson, a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, said he heard about Writing in the D from one of his English teachers. He enjoys writing fiction and is considering studying either at the Specs Howard School of Media Arts or communications and English at the University.
“It’s been a great program,” he said. “I love the teacher, and it’s nice to be able to see the U of M campus just to see how things are going on there.”
Johnson does not receive college credit for the course, but Hernandez said she is going to work on this for DPS students in the future.
“I’ve learned how to flex a little bit more beyond the norm because when I write, I try to make sure that my writing overall makes sense,” Johnson said. “I love writing fiction, but if you’re going to write fiction, you have to make sure it’s as realistic as possible. It can’t just be off the wall.”