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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #21)

Greetings from Chicago!

The start of the fall semester is fast approaching and while I will miss the more relaxed schedule of my summer days, I am looking forward to meeting the incoming class of first year students at UIC.  I often forget how unique my experience is on campus as I look out at a group of students who are truly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and religion.  These students teach me about what “America” is actually like and what it can be in the years to come even as I help teach them the literacy skills they will need to succeed.

Fall is always the busiest semester for me and this fall is no exception.  I’ll be teaching four sections of Academic Writing I, the first class in the First Year Writing sequence, with a total of 96 students.  This year I’ve decided to focus that class primarily on genre so that we can consider how the forms we choose to write in signal to our readers what we intend and shape the ways we use language.  I also plan to consider how our language choices as writers can shift the ways in which readers understand a genre.  Stay tuned as the semester progresses to hear more on how my writing classes are going.

In this month’s blog post, I’d like to consider the role of classroom design in the way that faculty teach.  For those of us who read Inside Higher Education or The Chronicle of Higher Education, articles on the death of the lecture and the need for more active forms of student learning are commonplace.  There has also been a resurgence lately in these publications of articles on the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom.  What gets missed in most of these articles, however, is any real discussion of the actual classroom.  How is it designed?

As with most form’s of infrastructure, the physical reality of the classroom is taken for granted.  A board, some desks, a few square feet of floor space sufficient to cover max enrollment.  Maybe a TV or projector system.  But if colleges and universities want to change the way they teach, there needs to be greater emphasis on the spatial design of the classroom.

Traditional lecture halls were designed with a sloping or step down tier system.  There also tends to be a curvature to these lecture halls.  Students eyes are thus directed downward towards a common focal point–a lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector screen.  Aside from the access issues these rooms present for physically disabled students, who might not want to sit all the way in the back or right up in the front, this traditional design sends a clear message about who is in charge and how knowledge gets distributed.  Some faculty might try to counter this trend by using the room in a unique way, but the design can’t help but frustrate that intent.  Group work and peer to peer discussion will always lead back to the focal point down below.

Rooms designed for a lecture/discussion format or a lab are a little better in terms of floor design.  The floor space is flat and holds a smaller number of students.  Some have fixed desks while others have movable desk and chair combos.  Often, however, the square footage of the room prohibits a great deal of movement of these desks.  It also takes considerable time and effort for faculty and students to rearrange desks for small group activities and discussion.  The path of least resistance, therefore, is to leave them pointed towards the lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector.  Student vision is distributed in a straight line but is still directed towards the professor.  Thus turning the classroom on most days into a smaller lecture hall with a flat floor.

Of the two existing options in classroom design, the spaces allocated for lecture/discussion classes have the greatest potential for adaptability.  They often, however, have too many students in them to make movement practicable on a regular basis.  One solution, certainly controversial, is to reduce the number of students placed in these classrooms or at the very least to revisit how max occupancy standards are arrived at.  On my campus, the Fire Marshall is the main factor determining this rather than pedagogical research.  There is definitely a need for more research on the optimal number of students that should be in a room for a certain type of teaching method to succeed.  This would give student advocates and faculty interested in changing to more active learning strategies some data to make their case for much needed changes.  Right now, much of the discussion on this topic remains anecdotal and (therefore) gets ignored by campus administrators.

For those campuses lucky enough to have the money to build new classroom facilities, the issue is a different one.  Should new lecture halls be built to create spaces for an evolved version of a venerable teaching method?  Or should all new class space follow the call for more active learning (sometimes called a flipped classroom)?  I’m of the opinion that new construction should contain spaces for all types of educational method currently applied  such as lecture and lecture/discussion.  New experimental spaces should also be constructed that allow for project based learning–small group activities and discussions.  These spaces should imagine such active learning as on-going and not simply one method of using a lecture/discussion space.

This fall one of my first year writing courses will be held in an experimental classroom.  It is a traditional lecture/discussion classroom that is being fitted with new desk and chair combos as well as touch screen monitors assigned to various clusters of desks.  These monitors are supposed to allow students to work in small groups on assigned activities easier as well as discuss readings.  The monitors are connected by a wireless system to the podium at the front of the room, which will allow me (should I choose to do so) to project what each group is working on up on the main projector screen for the entire class to see.  I’m sanguine about what I’ll be able to accomplish in this set up with that group of writing students.  As I get a better sense of what is different, I’ll let you know since I’m also teaching in three more traditionally designed lecture/discussion classrooms.

What I can say before I even get started in using the space, is that I’m afraid classroom designers (and some faculty) focus too much on technology (projectors and screens) as well as desks.  The real focus (in my opinion) should be on square footage, focal points, and lighting.  There should also be some consideration on storage for backpacks and winter coats as well as access to electrical outlets.  For the experimental classroom I’m teaching in, I believe that racks will be installed under the chairs.  We’ll see how that works.  The electrical outlet set up will remain the same.  Temperature of the room and wall color are also important.  And, just as important, the room should make disability access seamless.  Too often, the design of a classroom makes it feel like disabled students are being accommodated.  They should be allowed to feel like the other students attending the class.

I hope that you all enjoy the waning days of summer.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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NeMLA CFP Reminder (Submissions Due 9/30)

The due date for NeMLA abstracts is fast approaching–SEPTEMBER 30.  NeMLA will be meeting in Pittsburg, PA this year and will showcase a wide variety of research in the fields of literature and language with a conference theme of “Global Spaces, Local Landscapes, and Imagined Worlds.”  You can view a full list of sessions proposed for this conference here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp.

Every year Area Directors have the opportunity to promote sessions and roundtables on topics of interest to them or that they believe are under-represented at the conference.  Among the sessions and roundtables I’ve proposed this year are:

What Counts As A War Story?  

This roundtable will examine narratives of war that don’t fit the traditional mold of male-oriented and combat-centered fiction.  After all, there are many ways to serve in the military and plenty of women in uniform.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:  https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16693.

Material Culture Studies and American Literature

This panel examines the tension between objects and ideas in American fiction.  What do U.S. authors have to say about the physical environment around them?  How does it support or contradict their beliefs about the world?  Papers on book and periodical history are also welcome.  Especially when the author addresses their own concerns about the production and distribution of their work.  You can submit an abstract for a paper to this session here:  https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16694.

Teaching Disability in American Literature

This roundtable continues what was a fruitful discussion in Hartford, Connecticut on the topic of disability in American literature.  I’d like abstracts to consider not only new texts to teach as part of a disability studies curriculum but also new ways of teaching disability in the classroom using fiction.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:  https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17059.

What Happened to the Reader?

This roundtable considers the experience of non-traditional and non-specialist readers of  fiction.  Presentations are especially welcome that examine teaching literary texts in not for credit courses and among non-traditional student populations.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17060.

I hope you’ll consider submitting a proposal for NeMLA 2018.  If you have any questions about the sessions I’ve proposed, please feel free to contact me about them.

As a reminder, NeMLA welcomes all scholars regardless of their employment status.  A limited number of travel awards are available for Graduate Students and Contingent Faculty.  You can find out more information about these awards here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/awards/travel.html.

Enjoy these last few days of summer and I look forward to seeing some of you in Pittsburg!

John

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #20)

Greetings From Chicago!

It’s hard to believe that August starts tomorrow.  Summer is moving along fast.  My summer has been both restful and productive this year.  Reading for my book progresses nicely and I even managed to finish revisions on my First Year Writing course early.  Now I can enjoy the weeks leading up to the Fall semester without stressing over the changes needed to my course schedule and writing assignments.  This year I’m teaching four sections of Academic Writing I in the Fall and I decided to focus more consciously on the concept of genre.  I’ve always felt that genre represents something of an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer.  It generally gives you a sense of what you are about to read and (as a writer) it gives you some parameters to work within to make sure that what you are writing is properly understood.  Beyond that, I’ll be using the class to focus on implicit versus explicit argumentation.  The plan is sketched out.  Now I just need to make sure it actually works for the students.  I should have a greater sense of this by about week 4.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow I head off for my last trip of the summer.  I’m flying north to Vermont to visit my family.  It’s interesting to read about my home state in the books associated with my research.  The Green Mountain State keeps coming up in discussions on the various attempts throughout US history to reform agriculture and improve human relations to the land.  Apparently Vermont is not only imagined as some sort of vacationer’s paradise but also as an Agrarian Utopia.  Having living in Vermont for nearly 21 years of my life, I can’t help but laugh.  This isn’t really the Vermont I know.  Author’s on the topic of agriculture and environmentalism seem obsessed with the eclogue.  I lived the georgic.  I was part of the labor mechanism that supported the outsider’s illusion.  Oh well, it’s good for local business and there are worse ways to make a living.  Like painting old dumpsters.  (Yes, this is a job I have done.  Don’t recommend it for people with weak stomachs.)

For this month’s post, I want to comment a bit on the relationship between history to literature.  This topic seems especially important now that shows like The Man In the High Castle and Confederate are being produced.  Generally speaking, I have no problem with counter-factual narratives.  Some are quite entertaining.  We shouldn’t hold fiction to the same standard as non-fiction.  Engaging the imagination is the point, after all, of figurative language.  Getting us to imagine a world of “what if’s.”  History is a different story.  It relies on narrative and imagination, just like literature, but it should be held to a more vigorous standard.  History needs to show us what the world was actually like at a specific place and time (good, bad, utterly horrific).  We should then be able to imagine as accurately as possible what people lived through during the time period examined.  Perhaps a good way to sum up the distinction I see between history and literature is that history complicates and literature creates empathy.

Of course, there are exceptions to the little schema I’ve provided above.  Many of the historians I enjoy reading create empathy with the characters in their non-fiction narratives.  Ken Burns is a great example of this in a visual narrative medium.  Also, there are plenty of good fiction writers who complicate our relationship to the fictional world they have created.  Empathy in Gone Girl is a difficult enterprise.  What worries me, however, is that the line between history and literature is starting to blur to an unhealthy degree.  Even more worrisome, we don’t seem to be talking enough about this blurring.  It’s like I tell my writing students, you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them.  Otherwise it’s just a grammatical error and not a cutting edge technique.  The same is true when mixing elements of history and fiction.  You have to know (or want to know) the truth before you can start engaging in the act of imagination.  Otherwise you end up with narratives that consciously or sub-consciously serve dangerous ends.  You start to forget what is the fictional story and what was the real course of events.  You also might start to not even care anymore about the distinction.

Others have written more eloquently than me on the problems of our “post-truth” era and its relationship to “fake news” and “reality TV.”  So I’ll spare you my analysis of those trends.  What I want to end this discussion with instead is a provocative juxtaposition of Mad Men with The Walking Dead.  Neither of these, of course, are history.  They are both Television shows.  What they share, however, is a similar emotional starting point.  Nostalgia.  In Mad Men, this nostalgia is painfully obvious in the mid-century modern details of each frame.  (Material nostalgia is rampant right now and deserves a good book.)  Yet it is also ambiguous in its message.  Are we supposed to mourn the loss of a world where straight white men ruled the world?  Where smoking and drinking happened everywhere with impunity?  Or are we supposed to look back at this episode of US history as a warning and take a moment to reflect on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go?  With The Walking Dead, more subtle messages (at least for me) are hidden behind the gore.  If you can set aside for a moment the fact that the living dead are killing  and eating people, you start to see that the show both feels nostalgic (for a world before the crisis) and also points to that nostalgia as a source of crisis.

Will we choose the Zombie or the ash tray?  And are they not the same thing?  A reminder that obsession with the past can be unhealthy.  That what is past is never truly past.  Perhaps HBO can redeem itself by staging one of Faulkner’s works like Go Down, Moses instead of a  stupid fictional docudrama imagining a world where the southern states won the Civil War.  Or we can take a break from imagining the past or the future and look at our present.  Beautiful, Scary, Confused, Ugly, and Poignant.  I’d like to see that on the page and screen.

Here is where I end my post.  I just have one more thing to add.  A reminder that the deadline for NeMLA paper submissions is fast approaching (September 30).  You can check out the various CFP’s here <https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp>.  I have several sessions that I have proposed.  You can see descriptions of them in my last NeMLA post (#19) along with links to the CFP for those sessions.  Let me know if you have any questions about what I’m looking for.  If you can possible afford to attend and see a session of interest, I would very much like to meet you in Pittsburg.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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Lions Led By Donkeys

If you haven’t yet seen Dunkirk and plan to do so, skip this review for a bit. If you have seen the movie, be forewarned that what you are about to read is a minority opinion.  As a scholar of military history and war literature, I found it deeply disappointing.  Even more so as this was one of the few non-comic book movies that Hollywood has put out in some time.  I was hungering for a good cinematic drama.  This wasn’t it.

When I first heard that Chris Nolan was planning a movie about Dunkirk, my thoughts were that this could either be great or horrible.  The switch from the Phoney War of late 1939 and early 1940 to the German Blitzkrieg into France that Spring presents a spectacle of epic proportions demanding a Cornelius Ryan to tell the tale.  None has really emerged, however, because the allied campaign at this stage was humiliating.  To my knowledge, the British Army still has not assigned a campaign ribbon for this series of battles.  It was melded into the larger crusade to free Europe from the Nazis.

I knew, however, that I was going to see a movie and wasn’t watching a documentary or reading a campaign history.  So I was willing to be forgiving of the film for its historical license.  I also knew from the reviews that characterization and narrative would be sparse, favoring a visual storytelling technique. What I was not prepared for, however, was the incoherence of that visual narrative.  I was left essentially, to create my own story for the film based on what I already knew or could surmise.  That’s why, I suppose, so many reviews of the film are positive.  Each person sees what they want to see on the screen.

What I saw was a banal story telling me (yet again) that “war is hell” and that common soldiers are insanely brave (sometimes) even though they are lead by idiots who have no concern for their life.  Trapped inside this old saw were the kernels of a better movie trying to get out.  Here are three.

First, the scene at the beginning where an unnamed British soldier escapes an ambush in Dunkirk and jumps behind a sandbagged defense held by French troops.  They curse at him in French and gesture towards the beach.  (Post-Brexit message perhaps?)  I would have loved to hear more about these brave soldiers who made the evacuation possible.  Most of them ended up dead or in POW camps.

Second, the scene on the fishing boat where a group of Argyll and Southerland Highlanders are hiding in the hull waiting for the tide to rise.  German troops have already flanked that part of the beach and shoot the boat to keep it from being used.  They set out anyway and the vessel starts to sink.  The men assume that if they unload some weight the boat will still float and plan to through the “silent man” overboard.  When he finally speaks, and they discover he is Frenchman, wearing a British army uniform, they are all the more eager to throw him into to the sea.  Ultimately, the boat sinks and the French man is left to drown as the others swim out of the wreck and are rescued by the civilian skipper of a motor yacht named Moonstone.  (Wilkie Collins saves the day again?)  Nothing is said about this moment of cowardice, but the men bear it with them on the train when they return home.  The civilians cheer their heroism.  They skulk and try not to make eye contact with them not because of the retreat but because of the men they abandoned to make their survival possible.  Men they were willing to kill directly to get home.

Third, the scene on the motor yacht Moonstone where a soldier rescued from a ship sunk by a u-boat shoves a young boy and kills him trying to force the crew to turn back to England.  His shoulder epaulette shows he is a low ranking officer (perhaps a lieutenant?).  The civilian crew continues to lie to him about the boy’s death, even as he sees the stretcher with the boy’s body on it removed from the boat when they finally arrive back in England.  I guess they want to save him the indignity of knowing he killed a child so he’ll be ready to defend England from Nazi invasion.

These stories are interesting because they belie the mythology that surrounds this event–The Dunkirk Spirit.  Churchill, newly appointed Prime Minister, tried to spin this disaster into a triumph, and largely succeeded.  The story told about this French port was one of civilian valor as small boats crossed the channel to “bring the boys back home.”  We see this civilian valor.  As for the soldiers, we see the baser instincts of human nature to preserve itself at the expense of all others (i.e. every man for himself).  Of course, we don’t see this long enough for the lesson to register.

What does register is the stunning visual and aural spectacle.  And those brief moments of narrative coherence in the air and at the end of the mole, where Kenneth Brannaugh finally manages not to overact, present the usual story of heroism in the face of superior enemy firepower.  Stiff upper lip.  God Save The King.  Wot. Wot.  Brannaugh’s character stays behind to try to save the stranded French and one of the unnamed RAF pilots who outflew his gas supply lands on the beach, destroys his plane, and waits for German’s to capture him.  The two shadowy Germans pointing their rifles at him are (interestingly) the only actual Germans we see in the entire movie.

Perhaps I was hopelessly naive or out of step with the world I live in (more Call of Duty than Paths of Glory) but I was hoping for an updated version of the narrative technique used in A Bridge Too Far.  I’ll never forget the hospital scene at the end as a wounded British paratrooper plays Vivaldi on the flute prior to his capture by the Nazis.  The camera pans to show the cost of war.

In Dunkirk we feel the cost of war.  I felt the visceral fear and frustration of the men trapped on the beach trying to get home.  I wanted to start swimming myself.  I also felt the fear of the men in the air and on the sea.  But that was it.  In a post-Brexit era, an age where attitudes of US isolationism outdo that of Col. McCormick in the 1930s, I’m afraid that isn’t enough.  Viewers need and deserve more if we are going to dredge up the ghosts of WWII.  This is just another exercise, I’m afraid, in nostalgia.

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #19)

Greetings from Chicago!

Looking at my blog posts, it’s hard to believe that my last was in March.  A lot of grading has happened since then as well as prep work for what promises to be a great conference in Pittsburg for NeMLA 2018.  You can find a list of all the Calls for Papers here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp.

Every year Area Directors have the opportunity to promote sessions and roundtables on topics of interest to them or that they believe are under-represented at the conference.  Among the sessions and roundtables I’ve proposed this year are:

What Counts As A War Story?  

This roundtable will examine narratives of war that don’t fit the traditional mold of male-oriented and combat-centered fiction.  After all, there are many ways to serve in the military and plenty of women in uniform.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:  https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16693.

Material Culture Studies and American Literature

This panel examines the tension between objects and ideas in American fiction.  What do U.S. authors have to say about the physical environment around them?  How does it support or contradict their beliefs about the world?  Papers on book and periodical history are also welcome.  Especially when the author addresses their own concerns about the production and distribution of their work.  You can submit an abstract for a paper to this session here:  https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16694.

Teaching Disability in American Literature

This roundtable continues what was a fruitful discussion in Hartford, Connecticut on the topic of disability in American literature.  I’d like abstracts to consider not only new texts to teach as part of a disability studies curriculum but also new ways of teaching disability in the classroom using fiction.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here:  https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17059.

What Happened to the Reader?

This roundtable considers the experience of non-traditional and non-specialist readers of  fiction.  Presentations are especially welcome that examine teaching literary texts in not for credit courses and among non-traditional student populations.  You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17060.

I hope you’ll consider submitting a proposal for NeMLA 2018.  If you have any questions about the sessions I’ve proposed, please feel free to contact me about them.

Now on to the topic for this month’s blog post.  Almost immediately after finishing up my grading and the session vetting for NeMLA 18 I jumped to the stack of books and articles in my writing space to start working on several projects that had been sitting, waiting for my attention for some time.

The first was a draft of an article based on my roundtable presentation in Baltimore on Drone Fiction.  Plan to submit that article soon to a journal.  The second was the manuscript of my second book on American Agriculture and Immigration that is slowly working its way into shape.  Most of the writing I’ve done on this second project has been in the form of reading notes for the books I’ve finished and brainstorming sheets where I think my way through the concepts I’m reading about in the slowly reducing book pile next to my computer.  I’d like to share some of that writing with you today.

From my reading on Agriculture in the U.S. so far, I’ve discovered three main issues.  The first is that the concepts of Independence and Industry lead the debate over agrarianism and the agrarian ideal.  I’m particularly interested in how the ideology of the physiocrats fits into this debate.  Their view seems to be that the “best” immigrants are those who have an independent mindset while also being hard-working.  This leads them to thrive and “take root” in the new soil in which they have been “transplanted.” The problem then becomes over time that the Yeoman ideal merges with the capitalist image of the entrepreneur.  Can you truly say that you work for yourself when you employ a significant number of non-family workers?  How does the nation feel about immigrant entrepreneurs?  What counts as self-sufficiency?  Writers like Jefferson clearly imagined a balance between independence and industry that historical events tip in favor of industry imagined in capitalist terms.  Profit and efficiency become more important than the dream of a “competency” held by many early national writers (i.e. enough resources to support a comfortable life for one’s family without making them rich).  Yet the image of the independent worker remains.

Second, a facile understanding of nature has hidden the distinction between the pastoral and the georgic in literary history.  The pastoral is an urban and elitist view of the land that excludes the presence of workers and work.  It is definitely a non-farmer’s view of the land.  For better or worse, this mode of literary production in relation to nature has dominated discussions on non-urban life and shaped our view of nature as space “untouched” by humans (i.e. wilderness).  Such spaces, as William Cronon suggests, don’t exist and never really have.  Even the native people in the United States shaped their landscape to fit their needs.  Georgic, in contrast to pastoral, is a working and highly complex landscape. People are part of the ecosystem in the georgic mode rather than intruders.  The question is not, therefore, how to remove them from that space but to imagine a proper relationship to the land.  How do we fit within the ecosystem?  What do we do has humans to shape that system for better and for worse?

Third, like the “West” the Jeffersonian Agrarian Ideal of the Yeoman farmer was always already lost.  Perhaps Jefferson looked out his window at the slaves tending his fields and created his writings on Yeoman farmers to distract him from that unpleasant reality.  Whatever the case may be, the writings on farming in the United States are elegiac and mythic from the very beginning.  We only see this, however, when we focus on the workers and the labor they engage in on the land rather than emphasizes the “virgin” wilderness.

That’s all for this post.  I’m going to go back to that stack of books and keep reading.  As I learn more, I’ll share it with you.

Until Next Time…..

John Casey

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NEMLA Call for Sessions 2018

NEMLA CALL FOR SESSIONS 2018

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #18)

Greetings From Chicago!

After an amazing NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore, MD, I am back in cold, damp, and drizzly Chicago getting ready for the school week ahead.  Special thanks to NEMLA Executive Director Carine Mardorossian and her staff for ensuring that everything ran smoothly.  I think I can say without exaggeration that this is the best convention of the organization I have attended.

My live tweeting skills are non-existent, but I did manage to tweet after the fact some highlights from the sessions I attended.  In my blog post for this month, I intend to do something similar, giving a recap of my convention experience and the conversations I was privileged to have with scholars during sessions but also out in the hallways and at the networking tables set up in the exhibit hall.

Thursday was spent on board related issues and a bit of sight seeing in the afternoon.  Former NEMLA President Ben Railton and I enjoyed the exhibits at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.  I can’t speak for Ben (if you’re reading this feel free to make a comment) but I enjoyed the “living history” aspect of the museum as it tried to demonstrate the ways in which the past shaped the present culture of Maryland’s African-American population in positive and not just negative ways.  Walking through these exhibits was like being invited to a sift through a family’s private collection of heirlooms.  Many thanks to the staff at the museum for being so welcoming.  I really enjoyed the artifacts related to Frederick Douglass’s life and time in Baltimore.

After the museum, I went to see the Baltimore maritime museum.  I especially enjoyed my visit the USS Constellation, which dovetailed nicely with the Lewis museum’s exhibit on ship caulking (Douglass’s job in the Baltimore shipyards).  The staff on the ship were highly knowledgeable in matters of 19th century nautical history and explained to me how a ship like the USS Constellation was built and maintained.  Walking through the sailor’s quarters in the berthing deck gave me a greater appreciation for Melville’s fiction, especially his great but hardly ever read novel White Jacket.  Being a sailor was (and in many ways still is) a hard life.

On Friday I began my day with a panel on poetry and had the pleasure of meeting Ron Ben-Tovim from the University of Haifa.  Our paths crossed several times on Friday and Saturday as we went to many of the same sessions.  He raised some very interesting questions about War Literature and the ways in which we as readers should respond to veteran’s writing.  In particular, he brought up the issue of whether veterans got what they were looking for by enlisting.  This, of course, raises the prior issue of what exactly they were looking for and whether their quest was directed into the appropriate channel. He also brought up the valid point that some people enjoy killing others and find liberation in the suspension of norms that is allowed by war.  In addition, he reiterated a point made by Paul Fussell in his discussion of his own service in WWII that war can be both terrifying and exhilirating at the same time.  It’s more complicated that being simply good or bad.

Many of these issues came up in conversation with attendees of the roundtable session I chaired and presented at on the issue of Teaching War Literature Since 9/11.  Special thanks to Brittany Hirth and Lea Williams for joining me on that panel.  For those who were unable to attend, my slides are available in the Writing Sample section of this website.

I also attended a session on Friday about Death and Dying (kind of a morbid subject I know) but gained a useful insight from Courtney Adams of Texas A&M University on Fight Club, a book and author that I have always had trouble connecting with.  The self-destructive hero trope she analyzed says a lot about the status of masculinity in the contemporary culture of the United States today and the need to reimagine what it means to be a man.

I also had the opportunity on Friday to chair a panel Agriculture as a theme in US fiction.  There were four amazing papers on very divergent topics and authors.  I was left at the end of this session with a curious thought about the connection between Deep Ecology and Nativism.  If you are “transplanted” to a different soil (metaphor for the immigrant’s experience) and fail to thrive, whose fault is it?  That of the soil or is it your own?

I finished off my day by attending the Keynote Address by Ilan Stavans on the problem of Monolingualism.  Two issues he brought up stayed with me for several days.  So much so that I was speaking with strangers about it on the plane ride home.  The first is the perfectionism that many of us bring to our attempts to study language.  This often stops people (myself included) from learning one language let alone many because I want to be fluent instead of functional.  It is a way to ensure that we stay monolingual.  The second was his observation that being multilingual isn’t simply about knowing how to speak and write in another language.  It is about being able to interact with another culture, often radically different from your own, but still relatable to your experience.  I though of this when I took a cab ride to the airport and had an amazing conversation with the driver, a recent immigrant from Ethiopia who wants the same things for his family that I want for mine.  Thank you Ilan Stavans for staying with me all the way from BWI to MDW and shaping my conversations with strangers.  And bravo for being able to speak to us for so long without notes or slides.  Something I aspire to.

Saturday I began my day with a panel on F.O. Matthiessen.  Who knew that people still read and/or talked about him?  I remembered his text American Renaissance from my undergraduate days, but just assumed that in our Critical Theory heavy environment that Matthiessen’s work would be passe.  What I took away from this talk was a greater appreciation for the New Critics and what they were trying to achieve.  In the contemporary narrative, Cleanth Brooks and his colleagues in the New Critical approach to teaching literature are often viewed as Ivy-league elitists when the reality is that Brooks taught at LSU Baton Rouge, hardly a bastion of elitism, and was trying to democratize the reading of fiction, making it easier for non-specialist readers to encounter.  Whether they achieved their intent or not and if they had the best approach to that goal are both open to dispute.  But democratizing literature still seems a worthy goal.  I also found myself wondering as I left that session when did we as literary scholars come to hate or distrust the thing we teach?  And if we don’t love the literature we teach, why should our students?

The capstone of my day on Saturday was the Area Special Event which my fellow Director Lisa Perdigao made possible.  Brian Norman came to speak to members of the American/Anglophone and Cultural Studies/Media Studies Areas on his new project examining “posthumous autobiographies.”  These are works that purport to narrate the authentic life of key figures in the Civil Rights Era that are written/edited by another author after their death.  Malcolm X’s autobiography was one of the key examples given.  There is some question over how much control Alex Haley had over the text and if he was simply an editor or perhaps an author of the text, subtly shaping the way we see Malcolm X and his legacy.  These questions are especially poignant as the Civil Rights movement gradually moves out of living memory with participants gradually passing away.  Soon all we will have to know these figures and their historical moment are the texts and monuments left behind.

Fittingly, my conference experience ended with a panel on African-American literary traditions in Baltimore, chaired by Lena Ampadu, a scholar whose essay on Paul Dunbar’s poetry was crucial in the fifth chapter of my book.  I was surprised to learn in this session as well as in the one on Saturday on Literary Maryland how crucial a role William Watkins played in the life of so many African-American authors and yet how little we know about him.  The world of African-American activist fiction was much more interconnected than I thought it was.  There is a clear intellectual history that develops from these personal connections that really needs a book to outline if.  If that book already exists, let me know.  It is an area that I only have limited knowledge in, mostly related to Frederick Douglass and Francis E.W. Harper.

After that session, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend from UIC grad school days and meeting her husband and son (NEMLA is a family friendly conference).  Then it was off to BWI and back to Chicago to prepare for next year’s conference in Pittsburg.

If you have a session that you would like to propose for NEMLA 2018, you can find a link to propose that session here:  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.  Sessions should be on a topic that you feel might be of interest to a wide range of scholars. Try not to be too specific in your abstract or too broad.  A few topics that I would like to see represented in Pittsburg include:  Women at Work, Class Issues in US fiction, Representations of Disability, Immigrant Narratives in US fiction, Bilingual Authors and Texts in US literature, and Native American Fiction in the US.  Other topics, of course, are welcome.  If you’re not sure how or if your abstract will work, email me directly and we can discuss it.  The deadline for session proposals is APRIL 29.  Once the sessions have been vetted, a CFP will go out for papers and presentations.  Usually this happens in mid to late May.

Thank you to all who attended NEMLA.  Our members are what make this organization great.  Please join us Pittsburg.  Our new president Maria DiFrancesco has an amazing conference planned.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #17)

Greetings from Chicago!

Today looks and feels a lot more like you would expect of March in the upper Midwest.  Lake effect snow is spreading out over the city leaving some neighborhoods buried while others see nothing but flurries.  I left the apartment this morning in a white out and arrived to a very snowbound and icy UIC campus.  Treacherous walking between buildings.  I guess it’s true what they say about the weather.  If you don’t like it, just wait a minute.  Hopefully the weather is better wherever you are.  And if not, that you’re inside watching the storm with a warm beverage.

The NEMLA 2017 Conference is just around the corner.  We’ll be meeting this year in Baltimore, MD from March 23-26.  Here is the main page for this year’s conference with links to the full program:  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention.html. I look forward to meeting some of you there.  This year NEMLA is setting tables aside for networking with other scholars in between sessions during the day, at the Saturday evening reception, and also at the closing brunch on Sunday.  I plan to be at the table devoted to the area I represent (Anglophone/American) meeting conference attendees and presenters.  Thanks to Claire Sommers, our NEMLA promotions fellow, for arranging this new initiative.  I’d love the opportunity to hear more about the research and teaching conducting by our members and your suggestions for the Pittsburg convention in 2018.  So please stop by!

Speaking of Pittsburg, if you are already thinking ahead to next year’s convention and have a session you’d like to propose, here is a link to the session proposal page for the 2018 conference.  http://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.  As a reminder, there are six types of sessions: Seminar, Panel, Roundtable, Creative Session, Workshop, and Poster Session.  Descriptions for each type of session can be found here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html.

I’ve had questions from potential session proposers about the difference between a Panel and a Roundtable.  Panels are good if you have a piece of writing that is not quite ready for publication review and is still in need of conceptual revisions.  Roundtables are good if you have concepts you want to discuss with an audience and are not anticipating publishing the records of that discussion.  If your paper is generally ready for publication but still needs some feedback, you might consider a Seminar rather than a Panel.  Seminars involve circulating papers ahead of time among session presenters and generally provide greater depth of commentary.

I don’t have a lot to say this month.  My workload has been pretty heavy as we pass the midterm mark on campus.  There is plenty of grading to do in my First Year Writing courses as well as my Survey of American Literature.  This has made any sustained thought  pretty difficult.  I seem to keep swimming from task to task, much like my students.  I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Department of Education Secretary Betsey DeVos’s comments on faculty telling students what to say and what to think.  That made me laugh.  (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/24/education-secretary-criticizes-professors-telling-students-what-think)  If I could tell my students what’s on my mind right now, it would be that I need a long vacation and a lifetime ban on emails and committee meetings.  I’ve already spent about two hours today answering emails, mostly from students who missed class today due to the weather.  Not much propagandizing going on here.  Just good old logistics.  I’ll have to work on building up my elitist, liberal, professor agenda.  : )

Speaking of agendas, I’ve decided to tweet my work week for the rest of the semester so the world can see what an NTT professor of English such as myself does with his time on the job.  You can follow my posts on Twitter at #facultylife.  Feel free to post your own updates on the work you do at that hashtag.  Let the world know that what we do is real work, most of it supremely unglamorous.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing some highlights from this year’s NEMLA convention in Baltimore.

Until next time…

John Casey

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The Death of Nuance

My current events blog died out years ago, but I still have a few meaningful (or at least I think them meaningful) things to say on matters happening around us today.  Below is an article originally written as an Op-Ed but rejected by the local papers because I am not an “expert” in the field of politics.  I’ve decided to publish it here.  

The Death of Nuance–

All government happens in the center.  Political discourse at the periphery (far left and far right) is useful primarily as a way to recalibrate the system and make sure the needs of everyone get met.  When I still lived in Vermont, I voted for Bernie Sanders for that reason.  I knew that he would fight passionately for his beliefs on the far left of the political spectrum and keep the professional politicians in Washington D.C. honest.  Those professional politicians, however, were necessary to insure that the entire federal apparatus didn’t come crashing down or grind to a screeching halt.

Whatever your thoughts on President Trump, it is clear that he came to power through an uneasy coalition of political movements including many organizations on the far right.  Some of these represent the worst tendencies in American culture and see the slogan “Make America Great Again” as an opportunity to roll back the Civil Rights gains of non-white and non-Christian inhabitants of the United States.  Mainstream Republicans have chosen to look the other way so that they can enjoy a majority in all three branches of the Federal government.  I also believe that they are afraid of Donald Trump and the Troll Army he has at his disposal via Twitter.

The fruits of this coalition so far have been chaos and a rapid decline in status for the United States as a world power.  One example is the poorly executed and poorly conceived Executive Order banning entry to citizens of seven nations deemed a threat to the United States.  Normal governance would have started with the President consulting with Republican leadership in the Senate and the House and giving them a framework to craft legislation amending existing immigration law.  He then would have held a press conference to explain that framework and could have announced an executive order at that conference slowing down entry of persons from a list of nations that pose a clear threat to the United States.  Responsible vetting rather than extreme vetting.

Trump, of course, chose not to do this.  Instead he crafted his order and sent it out as swiftly as possible, giving little guidance to those charged with enforcing it.  What happened next was inevitable.  A blunt order led to a blunt response.  Now all immigration reform is racist and xenophobic and all attempts to protest it are unpatriotic.  How, I ask, is this useful to the United States?  Not only does it not make the nation safer but it increases the partisan divide present throughout the 2016 election and ensures that true governance is impossible.  It also confuses and terrifies our allies who are fast backing away from the United States and ensuring that in the not too distant future we will be a pariah nation.

Domestic and Foreign Policy is not and cannot be treated like Reality Television.  It is desperately boring for a reason.  Nuance is boring.  Such nuance is nonetheless necessary to ensure the proper functioning of government at the local, state, and federal level.  Without it, you have chaos, fear, anger, and social collapse.  Let’s keep the drama out of the White House and leave it with Gordon Ramsey in Hell’s Kitchen.  Then the government can get down to the task of crafting policies that will help all of the people in the United States.

John Casey, Chicago, IL

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #16)

Greetings from Chicago!

If your weather is anything like ours, the ups and downs in temperature are hard to keep track of.  Just a few days ago, I was wearing my heavy winter coat with a single digit wind chill freezing me on my walk to the train station.  Today the sun is out and the projected high is near 50 degrees fahrenheit.  I guess it’s true what they say.  If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.  Of course, temperature swings aside, there is no snow or ice on the ground here in Chicago.  That is worth the hassle of temperature swings.  At least in my opinion.

The NEMLA 2017 Conference in Baltimore, MD is just a little over a month away.  This year’s conference has a great lineup of speakers and events.  In the Anglophone/American Section, there are a broad range of research and teaching interests represented.  Everything from methods of teaching early American literature in a way that resonates with 21st century students to research on the eco-gothic and urban pastoralism.  You can see an online version of the convention schedule here.

The Anglophone/American area also has a great special event speaker this year.  I’ve teamed up the the Cultural Studies and Media Studies chair Lisa Perdigao to invite Brian Norman to speak on the topic of the “posthumous autobiography.”  You can read more about Brian Norman and his research here.

I hope to see some of my blog’s readers in Baltimore.  Just look for the mustache and bowtie.  My signature look.  ; )

After the conference wraps up in late March, I’ll be sending out a call for sessions for next year’s conference in Pittsburg (the last at which I’ll be serving as area director).  If you have an idea for a roundtable or session, start working on it now.  I’d love to see you there. Topics of particular interest for the Pittsburg conference include images of Labor in U.S.fiction (past and present) as well as panels that address immigrants and immigration in U.S. fiction, particularly Latinos.  Disability Studies panels are also welcome as this is a subject of perennial interest at our conventions.  Submissions on Disability Studies to my area should address in some way the literary texts that either subvert or reaffirm our current understandings of the disabled and/or of “ability.”

Now for the part of my monthly blog where I give you, my readers, some insights into my current work.  This month’s post (intended for January but woefully behind schedule) will focus on teaching, specifically my approach to teaching an intermediate level American Literature survey.

First of all, I’d like to start with some terminology.  I’m not always good at following my own rule, but over the years I’ve started to become more rigorous in my distinction between the meaning of the United States and that of “America.”  As I told my students during week one of this semester, the United States is a political and geographical reality.  It is a place on a map that you can visit.  America, in contrast, is an idea.  The only way that America has a physical reality in the world is through the actions of those who live in the United States and continually debate with each other the meaning of that idea.

To highlight that distinction, I subdivided my survey course into three sections.  The first I titled “America Lost/America Found.”  In this section of the course, we examined the competing views of the land espoused by the First Nations (i.e. Native American tribal cultures) and those of the “discoverers” of “America” (i.e. the English and Spanish explorers and settlers).  For one group of writers, the vision of the world they lived in was superseded while the other created “America” to fit the new continent within their pre-existing views of the world.

The second section of the course is called “A PostColonial Nation.”  This section of the course contains many of the same authors found in an American Literature survey, but they are re-contextualized within the framework of postcolonial theory.  The United States, after all, was a Colony of Great Britain that used many of the same reasons for independence that nations would use much later to justify separation from the “mother country.”  During the past week, my class has read Thomas Paine’s defense of the rebellion in the English Colonies (Common Sense and The Crisis).  One of my students made the astute observation that not only were the fledgling colonies growing to young adulthood (as Paine imagined them) but also realizing that they lived in a household with abusive parents and needed to move out.  Now that we have made it past the part where the English colonies are moving out of the home space created by the mother country, our next series of readings will look at the United States trying to determine its own identity in terms of culture.  What remains from the British tradition in the new world as authors and readers fight over the idea of “America” and what new ideas emerge?

The third and final section of the course addresses a concern that came up during the Presidential election last year that the cities of the United States are increasingly divorced from the world of a place called “the country.”  This problem goes back to the founding of the nation in the contrasting political philosophies of men like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  For the purposes of this class, we’ll examine this urban/rural divide as a stable metaphor in U.S. culture and see how that metaphor plays out in two key novels from the late nineteenth century, Sister Carrie and O Pioneers!  In the first of these narratives, we see the fears of those outside the city at the corrupting power of urban space, particularly for women.  The second addresses the issue of immigration and the rural landscape.  Who are the people who live in the country?  What do they do for living?  What makes them different from those who choose to live in the city?

It’s been a while since I’ve had the privilege to teach an American Literature course so I’m putting my full energy into teaching it this semester.  My hope is to cement in my student’s minds the reality that terms do matter.  They frame the starting points of our thought.  Consequently, if we mistake “America” for the “United States,” we leave out the other countries that make up North and South America as well as Central America and the Caribbean.  We also assume that we know what “America” means.  If 2016 has taught us nothing else, it should be that these foundational terms cannot be taken for granted.  A healthy debate is always needed about the idea/ideal of “America” and how it relates to the United States.  I want to create a place where that debate can take place in a respectful and useful manner.

My hope for this post is to suggest to other scholars and teachers (wherever or whatever you teach) that syllabi matter.  I teach First Year Writing more frequently than literature and our program has a strong genre-based focused that emphasizes the relationship between writer, form, reader, context, and desired outcome.  Faculty need to ask themselves what they hope to achieve from their course and make this part of the creation of their course syllabi.  Too often it is a throw away genre that is constructed primarily to meet administrative needs and is thereby trapped in traditions that are comfortable but not useful for students or the advancement of pedagogy in a particular field.  I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone here and practice in the classroom some of the concepts I talk about in conferences like NEMLA as well as in my research.

Well, that’s all for this month’s post.

Until next time….

John Casey

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