Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #6)

Greetings from Chicago!  It’s cloudy and cold outside today as I sit and write this blog post but unlike the east coast there’s no snow on the ground here.  Perhaps I’m crazy, but I kind of miss the snow cover.  Haven’t had a chance to drag out my cross country skis at all this year.

My last blog post was written before Christmas.  I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the month of December off as I was focused on visiting my family and trying to wrap up a bunch of projects that had collected on my desk over the fall semester.  In that November post I examined the use of electronic texts.  This post will cover the topic of Educational Technology.

I first became aware of the term “Educational Technology” through Twitter, specifically the tweets of Audrey Waters.  Before reading some of her posts on Hack Education, I had never heard of the term but I was well aware of the programs and services the term described.  Most familiar to me is Blackboard, the Course Management System (CMS) used at UIC.  I was also familiar with the various products such as MyWritingLab that Pearson had long been promoting amongst writing faculty on campus.  Apparently they have a version of this My(fill in the blanks here)Lab for every discipline taught on campus.

Most faculty entering the market for Educational Technology are either lost in a field of options made more confusing by technical jargon or are simply content to accept whatever technological tools are provided to them by their employer.  Few of us have the time or inclination to ask what types of technology are cost effective and, more importantly, what tools will actually enhance what we do in the classroom.

I experimented with several different types of educational technology in my First Year Writing classroom during the Fall semester of 2012.  The course I was teaching (ENGL 160) is designed to teach students short genres of writing such as the argumentative essay and proposal writing.  At the time, the course was balanced between academic and non-academic genres.  You can find a link to the syllabus under the Teaching Materials tab of my website.  It’s called “First Year Writing:Genre and Argument.”

I chose the Profile genre as well as that of the Manifesto to help students practice writing in a public context.  Since many of these non-academic genres are published online, I decided to have them work on the text of their assignments in Microsoft Word but then import that content into Google Sites for the Profile and Tumblr for the Manifesto.  Neither of these tools are typically considered educational technology, but that is part of my point.  Marketers have software and services that they claim are designed with your classroom in mind.  But any technology can become educational technology if you provide the proper pedagogical context for it.

In the case of the Profile, Google Sites was chosen as a simple web design tool that would allow students to craft an online Profile for the person they interviewed.  This person was someone on campus at UIC that they felt others should know. My favorite example was the student project that focused on a custodian in her dorm complex.  The hope with this writing assignment was that students would not only learn basic rhetorical techniques associated with the Profile genre since its creation but also would learn how to translate those analog skills into a digital environment.  It worked generally OK.  My one frustration was with my choice of platform.  Google Sites proved easy to me, but not my students who struggled to figure out its design interface.  Tumblr was a different story.  Most of my students had already used Tumblr before and some had profiles on the site.  They also like the photographic emphasis of the platform as opposed to the text heavy set up of Google Sites.  They used Tumblr effectively to create a Fashion Manifesto (based on the popular Sartorialist blog) that was designed to teach UIC students how to be fashion savvy on campus.

This academic year our program has begun shifting to primarily academic forms of short writing.  I haven’t taught this particular course in a while so I’m not sure how that would shift my choice of educational technology.  One thing is for sure, however, I like choosing and shaping the tool I want to use rather than simply taking something given to me by an educational technology designer.  This saves students money but is also gives me flexibility as an instructor to shift from platform to platform as I see fit rather than being locked into a deal with a major publisher or software developer whose staff don’t fully understand the needs of my class. The downside to this approach, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is that it does take a bit of time to create your own context.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve stepped back from the process of platform selection in the last few semesters to more traditional pedagogical tools.  I’ve even tried, Lord help me!, to make Blackboard work to my advantage.  No luck on that yet.  It still serves mainly for me as a clunky version of Dropbox.

Faculty on campuses around the world are doing some excellent work with their students creating their own educational technology.  Two that come to mind are Chuck Rybak at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and Jeff McClurken at the University of Mary Washington.  There are many more.  What these faculty have in common is a desire to learn the logic behind technological tools and create a context for them in the work they do in the classroom.  Again, this takes time.  It also takes money and at the very least a minimal amount of institutional support.  Unfortunately, at my institution security concerns and legal liability issues trump the desire for experimentation.  As I often joke with colleagues, the answer to any question asked of our university computing center is “Blackboard.”

For anyone reading this post who’s interested in delving into the world of educational technology I recommend first finding a partner to work with.  This could be either another faculty member in your department who shares some of your interests, a colleague in a department such as computer science who would be interested in collaborating with a humanities scholar, or a librarian willing to help you create your own educational tool.  Not only will this save you time, but it will address the issue of funding, which is always a concern with new projects.  Free online tools are abundant but not always easy to find.  Adapting these tools might also cost you some money for things like hosting fees and access to advanced editing tools.

What I don’t recommend is simply taking the tools offered by educational companies and using them in your classroom.  Blackboard is useful.  Especially the announcements, file sharing, and grade book.  But using it teaches me nothing.  Nor does it teach my students.  All it does is deliver content.  The point of educational technology should be more than content delivery.  It should be the act of learning how to deliver content through an electronic medium (a.k.a. digital literacy).  

I hope you all find the tool that works best for you and don’t get distracted by technology that you don’t need.  If you are a faculty member and have some tools that you particularly like or educational technology projects you’re proud of and would like to share with my readers, feel free to comment on this post.

My next post is going to shift from pedagogy to research.  I’ll be sharing with you some of the themes associated with my next book project.  A work very much “in progress.”

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #5)

I hope that you all had a Happy Thanksgiving and are on track for a successful end to your fall semester.  After getting back from a visit with my in-laws in Springfield, Illinois, I find myself swimming furiously in a sea of student papers, articles and manuscripts in need of peer review, and revision of my own writing.  There’s also the constant rush of students in and out of my office now that they’ve discovered (belatedly) the location of my office as well as my posted office hours.  Ah, the glamorous life of the academic.  ; )

In my last blog post, I focused on the use of Twitter for academic purposes. This month I’d like to discuss the use of electronic texts in the classroom.  Among my colleagues at UIC, there is a robust debate over whether it is appropriate at all to invite the use of electronic devices in the undergraduate classroom.  Some faculty choose to prohibit phones, tablets, and laptops from their classrooms and require students to purchase hard copies of books and print out articles for discussion in class.  Other faculty on campus only use electronic texts, print sources than have been scanned or coded into an electronic format or sources that only exist electronically.

My approach is a hybrid of these two poles.  Certain books I prefer to have students buy in hard copy or print out.  These are typically sources that we will be reading closely or analyzing multiple times.  Other resources, mostly contextual in nature, I prefer students to access electronically as needed.  The rationale behind this decision does have some research to back it up, but is based largely on my teaching experience as well as feedback I have received from students.  “Close reading,” “Analytical Reading,” “Hermeneutics,” call it what you will, depends upon a form of deep concentration that it is hard for us to achieve when we are scrolling up and down a computer screen.  True (as Franco Moretti points out) readers have been engaged in superficial readings of texts for as long as humans have been writing language down.  However, it is just too easy for me to shift to Facebook, Twitter, or another document when reading an electronic text or skim rapidly across the words on the screen without registering much beyond the “gist” of what I have read.  With a  book or article in hand, I feel pressure to go back over text my eyes have lazily gazed over and highlight/annotate the parts of the text that seem significant.

Students in my courses have generally agreed with this assessment.  Contra Cathy Davidson whose most recent book, Now You See It, champions the benefits of distraction, students on the UIC campus have complained to me about how hard it is to focus with their phones buzzing and pinging with updates and notifications from various apps.  They have also found the technological limits of wifi, software compatibility, and device battery life a challenge.  We joked in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory course several semester’s ago that the main vulnerabilities of the codex as interface are water and fire.  Other than that, as long as you don’t lose the book or print article, you’re good to go.

These significant drawbacks to the electronic text have often left me skeptical about the best way to use them (if at all).  As I mentioned earlier, the main ways in which I have found electronic texts useful have been contextual in nature. This includes bringing historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, photographs, and maps into the classroom.  These supplementary texts help us better understand the social background of the writings we are analyzing.  Another effective use of electronic texts has been when a work is otherwise unavailable in print for students to read.  Most of the authors I teach and research are now part of the public domain, making their work freely accessible for all to distribute in whatever way they see fit.  What better way to appreciate the literary context that influenced an author’s aesthetic than to read the works of his or her contemporaries for comparison.

Perhaps the greatest source of influence in my decision on whether or not to assign an electronic text, however, has not been pedagogical at all.  Instead it has been driven by the rising cost of student textbooks.  The anthology I used in my Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory cost students on average $115 to buy.  Renting the book lowered the cost to around $70.  This might not seem like much in comparison to texts in other courses that can cost significantly more or software programs that students are required to buy for majors in the architecture and the sciences.  Yet the cost adds up over time.  Whenever I assign a print book or article, I make sure that we are in fact going to read the text exhaustively.  That it is in ever sense a “required” text for the course.  Anything that might even be vaguely considered supplemental, reference oriented, or “recommended” is assigned in an electronic format to save costs.

Now at this point it is worth acknowledging the hidden and often not so hidden cost of e-texts.  Publishers come by my office on a near constant basis around this time of the year, particularly Pearson.  They are more than eager to sell my students access to proprietary websites that mediate between them and the things they will be reading.  One example is MyReadingLab.  The allure of such technology is that it lessens my workload in and out of the classroom.  But is it worth the cost?  To me, at least, it isn’t.  I would rather find online resources that are either free or more affordable and link students to them via our course management site, Blackboard.  There is also the transfer of costs to students in printing fees, my xerox budget has been cut dramatically by my department, as well as the cost of buying a device to read electronic texts on.  Sure, a sizable number of our students have smartphones today, but who wants to read a novel on a iPhone?  Even youthful eyes are strained reading that tiny print.

The only honest way to conclude a discussion of electronic texts in the classroom is to admit that the data is mixed.  Their are numerous disadvantages to moving away from print texts but there are also many benefits.  I hope to have a fruitful discussion on both during my round table presentation in Hartford on “required texts” and “authoritative” editions of literary works.  In the meantime, if you have been using electronic texts successfully or unsuccessfully in the literature classroom, let me know.  If you haven’t tried using them at all, experiment with a few this spring.  Teaching and scholarship after all are a great adventure.  Why else would we keep slogging along through the seemingly endless writings by students and colleagues that call for our attention on an almost daily basis?

In my next blog post, I intend to revisit my comments on Pearson and other educational resource providers (including Blackboard).  What should scholars know when they enter the market for educational technology?  How can we choose the tools that make sense for our pedagogy when we are limited by lack of knowledge, money, and sometimes institutional bureaucracy?

Until next time….

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #4)

Greetings from Chicago!  It’s starting to look and feel like winter a lot more with each passing day.  Colorful hats and scarves are coming out of storage and adding to the beautiful colors of the fall foliage on campus.  Here’s a picture I took this weekend of the signs of fall slowly turning to winter at UIC.  Hopefully you’ve had a least a few sunny days wherever you are.

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In my last blog post I began to discuss issues related to teaching with technology in the field of American Literature.  This month I’d like to move from blogs, a fairly well-established medium at this point, to the newer and more contested form of micro-blogging that is best exemplified by Twitter.

What can you do in 140 characters or less?  This was the question I set out to answer in August of 2011 when I signed up for Twitter.  Here is a summary of what I learned:

  • You need to choose the people you “follow” carefully
  • It’s easy to get into fruitless arguments with people you don’t know
  • Networking via Twitter is haphazard.

Let me start with the first of these observations.  The reason I say that it matters who you follow is that this decision dictates your Twitter “feed.”  When you “follow” someone on Twitter, you tell the service to send you everything that person posts.  This might include photos, things they have written, or materials they forward to you from other people (known in Twitter lingo as “retweets”).  If you plan to use your Twitter account primarily for academic purposes, it makes sense to follow faculty whose work you admire, programs that are producing materials you find useful to your own work, or institutions that contain primary sources you frequently use.  You can also add the accounts of colleagues in other fields and keep up with research happening in areas of study not directly related to your own.  When you choose the people you follow carefully, your Twitter feed ends up looking like a newsletter (updated each day) or an interactive RSS list.  If the headline grabs your attention, you can then click on it and learn more about new research, job changes, grant and positions available, etc.  Most complaints I’ve heard about Twitter feeds involve users who want their account to be simultaneously personal and professional.  You can try to do this, but (unlike on Facebook) I don’t think it will work.  Tweets from the National Archives and faculty on United States Civil War era culture don’t mesh well with the latest pronouncements from celebrity land.  Save the Kardashians for a personal Twitter feed or for scholars in contemporary pop culture.

Focusing on my next observation, writing in 140 characters or less is an exercise in precision.  You need to eliminate all unnecessary words as Twitter won’t let you send out a message that is longer than its software allows.  (This might change in the near future, but for the moment the limitation stands.  More on the shift in Twitter’s function later.)  I have used Twitter in my college composition classrooms as a way to teach summary to students.  It can also be a useful grammar teaching tool if you force people to Tweet grammatically correct statements with no text speak or emojis.  Of course, this haiku like brevity also leaves plenty of room for misunderstanding.  I learned this the hard way not long after I joined Twitter.  My assumption was that hardly anyone would read my tweets.  I am not famous after all, just a Lecturer in English at a midwest regional university.  Following this logic, I vented my frustration with the Modern Language Association (MLA) on Twitter.  Imagine my surprise when the Executive Director of the MLA (Rosemary Feal) responded to my tweet.  Not only did she respond, but she was hurt by the critique contained in my message.  After trying to explain myself via multiple haikus (a.k.a. tweets), I gave up and moved over to a new medium (a blog post) that seemed better suited to the complex nature of our disagreement.

My experience with the knee-jerk nature of disagreement on Twitter is not unusual.  What is unusual is the positive outcome to the interaction.  Many have begun to use the medium as a way to bully others into silence.  Although any tool can be used for a similar purpose, including the telephone, Twitter seems particularly vulnerable to this type of manipulation.  Twitter, as many analysts have claimed, is a tool for “amplification,” getting one’s message out to the broadest audience possible.  What gets amplified sometimes fills me with disgust.

Getting into a Twitter fight so early in my use of the medium has shaped my usage of it since.  Someone who has studied the medium much closer than I have has observed that there are typically three types of people on Twitter:  the lurkers, the reposters, and the networkers  I began as a lurker, simply reading the tweets of others.  From there I attempted to be a networker, only to be shot down for speaking up.  Since that moment, I have been mostly a reposter.  A quick glance at my Twitter feed will show that I don’t write much content on Twitter.  I repost the materials of others that I think might be useful or interesting to other people.  I also post links to my blog, which is where I do most of my talking.  Twitter (as I use it now) amplifies the works of others and also publicizes my own.

This leads me to my final point.  Just as I thought that blogs would help me to network with scholars I could never meet in person, I also thought that Twitter would help connect me to scholars whose work I admired from afar but would never meet at an academic conference.  That hope didn’t pan out.  As with blogs, I learned that face to face networks tend to have a greater impact that virtual ones.  It was only in a few instances where virtual networking proved to be relevant and lasting.  Mostly it’s like throwing darts in a dark room.  Twitter is a good supplement to old fashioned networking, but it is a supplement rather than a replacement.  Not great news, I’m afraid, for adjunct faculty.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to discuss the issue of how Twitter has changed since I joined in 2011.  Twitter remains a free service, but went public in 2013 and now trades on the New York Stock Exchange.  As with Facebook, the decision to become a publicly traded company has altered the nature of the medium.  Ads and “promoted tweets” now flood my feed and often drown out the ones that are more relevant to me.  A new “moments” feature has also been added to the mobile version that sends me the top news stories of the day in a feed format that looks a lot like Facebook.  There has even been discussion about changing the 140 character limit, allowing longer messages.  In a struggle to be profitable, Twitter is killing off what made the service unique in the first place.

Twitter has become less a newsletter and more of a billboard.  At the same time, the aggression directed at some of the most vocal communicators on Twitter has shut down meaningful discussion through the medium.  Legal attention to faculty tweets (particularly those of Steven Salaita) has also had a similar silencing effect.  What began for me as a virtual seminar, teaching me enormous amounts of information on what came to be known as Digital Humanities, is now just another news aggregator.

I hate to end on a down note, but I have to be honest about my experience with this particular tool.  Keep in mind, however, that this is just my experience of Twitter.  It’s still free.  Try it out.  Discover for yourself how or if it makes sense to communicate your scholarship in 140 characters or less.

Next month I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of using electronic texts in the classroom, a prelude to the topic I’ll be presenting in Hartford.  From there I think it makes sense for us to consider our vulnerability as scholars entering the market of educational technology.

Until next time…..

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #3)

Greetings from foggy and damp Chicago!  I hope the weather is at least a little nicer wherever you are.  This third blog post was meant to be a space for NEMLA members to share their thoughts on the relationship between teaching and research, a topic explored in my last blog post. However, upon checking my email inbox, I discovered that no one had sent in any responses.

Consequently, for this month I’m going to focus on two things.  First, reminding NEMLA members that you have until Midnight TODAY to submit your proposals for this year’s conference in Hartford thanks to a deadline extension.  Session descriptions can be found at https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp.  Second, focusing on the role of technology in the field of American Literature.

Since I am writing a blog post, perhaps the best way to start is with that medium.  Blogs aren’t really a new technology. They have been around since at least the 1990’s.  I remember using a primitive version of web journal during my undergraduate years that looked a lot like a blog and allowed users to communicate within the university’s computer network (intranet) in a manner similar to today’s chat rooms or discussion boards.  Yet it has only been in recent years that blogging has evolved from a niche mode of communication for the tech savvy to a form of expression that now overshadows most other genres of writing.  This growth in the number of bloggers is due in no small part to the creation of blog templates such as Blogger and WordPress that eliminate the need for writers to know coding languages.  Online writing tools used to require someone to create them before any writing could be done.  Now an aspiring blogger simply needs to pick a service provider, choose a template, and start writing.

I came to consistent blogging fairly late in my career.  After my introduction to this form of writing as an undergraduate, I didn’t write anything that might be considered a blog until 2011.  At the time, my decision was based mostly on frustration.  I felt that no one in my immediate circles of colleagues was interested in my area of research and I couldn’t afford to travel to the conferences most relevant to my field.  Blogging allowed me to connect with other scholars that I might otherwise never meet face to face and share my research with the world.  Of course, it also gave me space to play as I created both a professional blog (on which this post was written) and a current events blog that was more for fun.  On that second site I wrote about topics in the news that I had strong opinions about (most local in nature).  It was like my own personal editorial page.

Not long after creating these two blogs, I discovered that one of the problems of online writing is figuring out how to develop a reading audience.  Even a print author grows discouraged if no one seems to be reading their works.  The same is true of a blogger.  If one is writing for themselves or for close acquaintances that they see everyday, the task of writing soon becomes a burden and the blog dies.  My current events blog suffered just such a death.  Another species of problem that can arise is gaining the wrong type of readership.  Much has been written on internet “trolls” who hijack discussions on websites and bully writers of blog posts into silence.  A different problem is when one gains readers but not on the subject originally intended.  My professional blog was intended as a space for me to share my research on American Literature, but soon developed into a venue for debating issues related to academic labor.

Initially I fought notoriety as an advocate for adjuncts as it is not something I’ve done research on, unless you count experience as a form of research.  Then I embraced it for the readership.  Finally, I discovered that after my initial round of posts, I had nothing else to say.  Having spoken my peace, I returned to my original topics of interests and my readership underwent a precipitous decline. Most of the traffic on my blog site today (johnacaseyjr.com) is still connected to my posts on adjunct labor and not my writings on American Literature.

What I’ve learned through my experience with blogging is that you need to create face to face networks before you can successfully establish an online readership.  You also need to have a clear sense of your blog’s purpose and audience. The blog site you are reading this post on has developed into more of a website (content to read) rather than a gateway for virtual conversation.  Part of me wants to accept that while part of me continues to seek audience interaction.  I think the design of my site reflects this tug of war.

I’ve rambled so long this month about blogs that I don’t have much time to talk about other technologies used in the teaching and research of American Literature.  Next week I’ll discuss another tool I’ve come to both love and hate–Twitter. This will lead me to a prelude of the issues I plan to discuss in my round table session in Hartford.

Until next time….

John Casey

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REMINDER: NeMLA 2016 (Hartford)-Call for Papers available online! (Abstracts Due Sept. 30)

2016 Call for Papers

Northeast Modern Language Association

47th Annual Convention

Hartford, Connecticut

March 17-20, 2016

Hosted by the University of Connecticut

Abstract Deadline: September 30, 2015

In spring 2016, the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) will meet in Hartford, Connecticut, for its 47th Annual Convention. Every year, this event affords NeMLA’s principal opportunity to carry on a tradition of lively research and pedagogical exchange in language and literature. The convention will include a full array of sessions, workshops, literary readings, film screenings, and guest speakers.

Hartford features some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in New England: the adjacent and interconnected Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses; the artistic and cultural collections at the Wadsworth Atheneum; classic and contemporary performances at the Hartford Stage, Theater Works, and the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts; archives and research opportunities at the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut State Library and State Archives; unique and offbeat museums for kids and families such as the Connecticut Science Center and the CRRA Trash Museum; and much more. Both Adriaen’s Landing (the newly completed area around the convention center) and the historic downtown feature a variety of restaurants, shops, and parks. 

Please join us for this convention, which will feature approximately 400 sessions, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.

Full information regarding the 2016 Call for Papers may be found on our website:

https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #2)

Here on the UIC campus it’s now week two and I’m already starting to fall behind. I’m sure that many of you reading this post can relate. Navigating my course schedule for the new semester, attending committee meetings, working on various writing projects, the to do list goes on. With a few spare moments in the schedule, I wanted to continue my conversation with you (the NEMLA membership) on issues relating to the research and teaching of American Literature. This month I’d like to consider what connection (if any) our research has on what takes place inside the classroom.

To start this discussion, I’ll share a bit of my own experience. My position at UIC is classified as teaching intensive.  As a full time non-tenure eligible “Lecturer,” I teach a 3-3 course load on a one year contract. Of course, this year’s unexpectedly large enrollment of first year students means that most Lecturers in my department are actually teaching 4 courses with the additional class considered an “over-comp” (i.e. pay in addition to faculty base salary).

Evaluation of Lecturers is based solely on teaching and teaching related activities.  What this means in practice is that student evaluations, syllabi, and faculty observations (by both TT and NTT colleagues) serve as the basis for hiring, retention, and promotion to Senior Lecturer.  Research (unless it relates directly to teaching) is not considered relevant in the assessment of UIC’s fairly sizable teaching intensive faculty pool.

Course assignments for Lecturers in the UIC English Department are determined primarily by the needs of its First Year Writing Program.  Nearly all of our department’s Lecturers can expect to each at least one first year writing course in a semester. On occasion, as enrollment allows, NTT faculty in the department might also be assigned to teach General Education or introductory level courses for the English Major.  Some of our NTT faculty in Creative Writing also teach upper level writing workshops.

You might very well ask yourself at this point why I’m focusing on what might properly be considered “human resources” issues.  These issues, however, are at the heart of the question of how research relates to teaching in my department. For Tenure Track faculty, research is the main focus of their job description with teaching assumed to follow in a holistic way from that research.  NTT Lecturers, hired solely on the basis of their teaching ability, face a different situation with research considered an outside interest that runs parallel to their duties for the university.  In essence, for a Lecturer at UIC, there is not (in most cases) a connection between their research and teaching, nor does the university expect such a connection to exist.

That said, many of my NTT colleagues persist in conducting research in a wide variety of fields and find ways to “smuggle” their interests into first year writing and general education literature courses. This might include course readings that either analyze an area of research interest for faculty or represent a concept crucial to their studies as scholars.  Our first year writing program also encourages faculty to have topics for their courses, and a casual glance at those topics will quickly give an outsider a sense of what the research interests are of Lecturers in the UIC English Department.

So far so good, but what about my research interests?  If you’ve taken a chance to read through my CV and skim through some of the writing samples on my website, you can see that my central research interest is in veterans of the United States Civil War and the cultural legacy associated with them in the late nineteenth-century.  How exactly that might be turned into a first year writing course still escapes me, so I haven’t tried to create one with that as its course topic (yet).  Nor have I had a chance to shape a lower level literature course to fit that topic since I haven’t (Oprah moment here) taught a literature course since 2011 (Introduction to American Literature and Culture).

The main venue through which my research has managed to cross over into my teaching has been in my methodology, which relies upon archival research. Each semester that I’ve taught the research paper course at UIC (ENGL 161), this method has managed to find its way into my syllabus and influences the topics that my students select.  It also influenced the way I taught many of the units in my Introduction to Critical Theory and Literary Criticism course (ENGL 240), especially the one on Digital Humanities.  Another way that my research has found its way into my teaching is the emphasis that I put on place and community in all my courses. Both of these themes were central to what it meant to be a veteran in the late nineteenth-century United States. Feeling out of place or in the wrong community is a feeling that shows up in many of the narratives examined in my book New Men.  

Never in my life have I been good at conclusions. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I love to talk and talk and talk and talk.  Especially if the topic is one in which I have an interest. Yet even a blog post needs an ending and this is where I’d like to leave you all this month.  Teaching has become for me a place to test ideas and find new interests that might not develop if I were sitting at home with a stack of books working alone on my next article or book chapter. The constraints of my working conditions also serve a purpose as they teach me that good ideas need skilled pitchmen and women to make their way out into the world. Rhetoric, I have swiftly learned, is not just a departmental staffing need but the mother discipline, especially in these times of budget cuts for the humanities.

In my next blog post, I’d like to share some of your experiences teaching and researching on American Literature.  How do you understand the relationship between teaching and research?  What types of classes do you tend to teach and how do you find ways to emphasize your interest/understanding of American Literature in those classes?  You can send your thoughts on this topic to me directly via email (jcasey3@uic.edu) with the subject line NEMLA Blog Post #3.  I’ll share selections of those emails with you all in my next post.

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #1)

Welcome to the first of what will be a series of short essays on the present and future(s) of American Literature that I’ll be writing during the last week of each month during my tenure as Director of Anglophone/American Literature for the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA). These essays are meant to give members of NEMLA a better sense of my scholarly background and outline the direction I hope to take the Anglophone/American literature division while serving as director. They are also an opportunity for members of this NEMLA division to share their own thoughts on American literature either through submitting comments, quotations for me to insert into the writing, or through guest posts.

In this first essay, I’d like to focus mostly on introducing myself to the members of the NEMLA Anglophone/American Literature division. My interest in American Literature developed out of a fascination with United States history. As a child I spent most of my summers with my grandparents and my grandfather and uncle Paul (who lived with him) had a sizable collection of books. Among them were illustrated volumes on the history of the U.S. Civil War and stories written by explorers of the western states. (The journals of Lewis and Clark are still among my favorite things to read.) I pored over those narratives and spent hours staring at the pictures in each book. Both spurred my imagination about what life must have been like for people living in the United States during the nineteenth century.

Coming from this background, it would have been natural for me to pursue a degree in history, but the social and cultural history that now dominates that discipline today was not yet common on the college campuses to which I applied. History programs in those schools seemed dominated more with facts and figures than the stories of ordinary people and the ways in which they understood their world (often at odds with the facts). As luck would have it, the English department at both the graduate and undergraduate schools I attended encouraged students to explore narrative as an extension of the self and the world that writers inhabit. I found a writer that interested me in the first semester of my graduate studies, John William De Forest, and the rest is part of my own history. That author and the method of literary study I had pursued since early on as a student would lead me to write a book that exemplifies my historically influenced approach to the study of literature, New Men.

A fascination with the context of literary production remains a constant in my scholarly life, but the topics I research are diverse. There are many veterans in my family and my grandfather’s obsession with military history shaped my reading habits from an early age. This led me first to essays and a book on veterans in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century United States. Growing up in Vermont also made me very much attuned to the environment and I’m currently conducting research for a new book on farming practices in the nineteenth-century United States and how those practices often clashed with the mythology of farming that many small farmer’s had imbibed from an early age. I suppose if there is any link between this new avenue of inquiry and the prior one, it is in the personal connection that stirred the desire to research the topic. There are also meaningful links here between the mythology of war and the warrior and that of the farmer. Few images seem quite as “American” as the citizen-soldier and the family farmer.

The courses I teach also serve as grounds for me to explore other areas of interest. These have included at various times: detective fiction, Westerns, Chicago literature, historic preservation, ecology, urban planning, and so on…. None of these interests have developed into a book (yet), but I have sent nearly a generation of students out the doors of my classrooms more attuned to these issues.  I am especially proud to have introduced to hundreds of undergraduates the uncanny significance of space when it is re-crafted for human needs(often referred to as human geography). Few of my students ever look at their environment in quite the same way again after having attended my class. One even wrote me a few semesters ago with a story about a poorly designed pedestrian mall in their hometown.

Some might argue that my eclectic research interests explain why I remain a non-tenure eligible faculty member (i.e. a Lecturer rather than an Associate Professor). Perhaps that’s true, but the glory of humanities research is not in the categorization. Instead it is in its ability to break and reshape categories. I guess that explains my recent fascination with Digital Humanities, which probably won’t save the humanities as a whole but certainly will force us to rethink the dominant paradigms shaping our various fields of study. Who knows, maybe someday what I’m writing now will be considered an essay and not simply a “blog post” (insert disdainful noises here) by the academic establishment.

Anyway, this is who I am dear NEMLA members. Passionate about what I do and quirky as hell.  It’s a pleasure to meet you all virtually and I look forward to seeing many of you in person in Hartford, Connecticut.

Until next time…

John Casey

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Teaching American Literature With Digital Texts (NEMLA 2016 Roundtable)

Digital Humanities (DH) is often understood in grand terms as a project to build and maintain electronic archives or software capable of the “distant reading” (called for by Franco Moretti) of vast bodies of texts. However, for most scholars in the humanities what counts as DH is learning how and how not to use digital texts in the classroom. This roundtable invites proposals for short presentations (5-10 minutes) that examine the ways that digital texts have entered our classrooms, particularly those of faculty who teach general education courses and surveys of American literature. Presentations might cover such issues as: determining what counts as an “authoritative text” in a digital medium, problems of access for students and faculty both in and out of the classroom, methods of teaching digital texts, theories of reading as they apply to digital texts in American literature, and distinctions between teaching digitized versus digital born texts.

Please submit an abstract and short bio at:

https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/15995

Deadline for submissions is September 30.

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Representing Disability In American Fiction (NEMLA 2016 Call for Papers)

Disability Studies provides a shining example of how interdisciplinary scholarship at its best might operate. Yet within literary studies this mode of analysis still struggles to gain pride of place. One reason for this is the fear of disability. Unlike most forms of identity, the markers of disability (a loss of bodily and/or mental integrity) are permeable and someday might be applied to any person. Additionally, able-bodied members of society are unsure how to interact with the disabled in a way that will not cause offense. Both of these fears help marginalize what otherwise would be a valuable tool for analyzing creative expression. This session will explore how these fears of disability are represented in American fiction across time periods, genres, and media. Papers are sought that cover topics such as the “gaze” of the able bodied upon the disabled, representations of disability as “monstrous” or “grotesque,” projections of societal anxieties upon the bodies of disabled persons, disabled figures at the margins of stories not commonly seen as addressing the topic of disability, and analysis of narrative forms used to discuss the concept of disability. Other topics will also be considered provided they address issues of representing disability in American fiction.

Please submit an abstract for your paper (250-300 words) as well as a brief bio at:

https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/15994

Deadline for submissions is September 30.

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NEMLA 2016 Call for Papers Online

2016 Call for Papers

Northeast Modern Language Association

47th Annual Convention

Hartford, Connecticut

March 17-20, 2016

Hosted by the University of Connecticut


Abstract Deadline: September 30, 2015

In spring 2016, the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) will meet in Hartford, Connecticut, for its 47th Annual Convention. Every year, this event affords NeMLA’s principal opportunity to carry on a tradition of lively research and pedagogical exchange in language and literature. The convention will include a full array of sessions, workshops, literary readings, film screenings, and guest speakers.

Hartford features some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in New England: the adjacent and interconnected Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses; the artistic and cultural collections at the Wadsworth Atheneum; classic and contemporary performances at the Hartford Stage, Theater Works, and the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts; archives and research opportunities at the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut State Library and State Archives; unique and offbeat museums for kids and families such as the Connecticut Science Center and the CRRA Trash Museum; and much more. Both Adriaen’s Landing (the newly completed area around the convention center) and the historic downtown feature a variety of restaurants, shops, and parks.

Please join us for this convention, which will feature approximately 400 sessions, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.

Full information regarding the 2016 Call for Papers may be found on our website:

https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp

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