CFP: NEMLA 2017 (Baltimore, MD)

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #12)

Greetings from Chicago!

Summer’s warmth is still here but the days are starting to get shorter and the mornings a bit chillier.  Fall is slowly on the way.  On the UIC campus, classes are back in session.  Walkways that were filled with just a trickle of students a few weeks ago are now swarmed with students and faculty searching for their classrooms.  This semester, for the first time in years, I had a sizable number of students show up to the wrong class.  I’m glad that I still start my first class with the “just in case you’re in the wrong place” speech.  I’m also glad that I’ve worked at UIC long enough to know how to direct students to the right place.  Since most of the students I work with are First Year students, small gestures from faculty mean a lot.  They set the tone for the academic year.

In my last post I promised to update you on my attempts to re-learn French.  Well, my report will be pretty short.  When I left for Vermont to visit my parents, I completely lost momentum.  This has been a persistent problem for me.  As an undergraduate and even as a graduate student, there was enough of a community to encourage me to keep studying and improving my second language abilities.  On my own, the record of study has been very mixed.  I wonder how many of my readers have faced a similar difficulty.  Have you found a way to over come it?  Are you will to share that approach?  Anyway, I’ll close this very short update with a plug for Duolingo.  It really is a great language learning app, particularly if you are looking to develop conversation skills in a second language.  I’m not sure how useful it is for writing and reading purposes as it doesn’t systematically address issues of grammar.

Regardless of my failures to re-learn French, knowledge of a second language is incredibly valuable for literary scholars.  Part of what makes literature unique is its self-referentiality.  This is made possible by an author’s exploitation of the gap between connotation and denotation in a given language.  You can only really understand this gap if you study a language with patience and persistence and have at least one other language to compare it with.  If you have the time and/or money to study another language, take advantage of the opportunity.  In spite of the fitful ways in which I’ve studied second languages in my life, I’ve still felt a benefit from that study.  It has almost been for me what traveling the world has been like for some of my friends, a chance to become less intellectually provincial.

Because my project to learn another language kind of fell apart, this month’s blog post will be fairly short.  I’d like to end by putting in a special invitation to all my readers to consider attending this year’s NEMLA conference in Baltimore, MD.  There are many great sessions currently scheduled that could use your paper abstracts.  I’ll be chairing two.  The first is a panel on the symbolic role of Agriculture in US and Anglophone fiction.  You can read a description of the session here.  The second is a round table session on teaching War Literature since 9-ll.  You can read a description of that session here.

Research will be the focus of my next blog post as I’m working on my second book.  In the meantime, whether you are teaching, researching, or using your education outside of a traditional academic setting, I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer.

Until next time…

John Casey

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NEMLA CFP:Teaching War Literature Since 9-11 (Roundtable Session)

Many faculty came of age in the Post-Vietnam War era. This time period was shaped by the writings of Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried and the films Platoon directed by Oliver Stone, Full Metal Jacket directed by Stanley Kubrick, and The Deer Hunter directed by Michael Cimino. These stories challenged the image of the United States as a land of righteous warriors protecting the world from oppression. Instead, soldiers were the pawns of forces they didn’t understand, forces that were bent on a neo-colonial domination of the world. Then came 9/11 and everything changed. Or did it? The goal of this roundtable is to examine the experience of teaching war fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth century to students for whom the Vietnam War is not even a distant memory, and 9/11 and the War on Terror are not necessarily a matter of interest. Which texts do faculty currently choose to teach in the classroom that cover the theme of war? How do faculty approach their analysis of these texts in the classroom? Which responses does that analysis receive from students? These are just a few of the questions we will consider in this session. Presentations are welcome that discuss film and television provided they focus on characterization and narrative rather than elements of film form. Speakers are also welcome that will provided a global perspective on the teaching of US fiction about war.

The goal of this roundtable is to examine the experience of teaching war fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth century to students for whom the Vietnam War is not even a distant memory, and 9/11 and the War on Terror are not necessarily a matter of interest. Which texts do faculty currently choose to teach in the classroom that cover the theme of war? How do faculty approach their analysis of these texts in the classroom? Which responses does that analysis receive from students? These are just a few of the questions we will consider in this session.

Proposals can be submitted at https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16294

All proposals are due by September 30.  

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NEMLA CFP:The Symbolic Role of Agriculture in Anglophone/American Fiction

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people…” (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIX). This quote from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) represents an attitude towards agriculture and specifically the family farm that remains influential in the United States today. Connection to the land is still viewed as sacred even as less people work on the land as farmers and ranchers (two percent according to the last census) and environmentalists struggle to reclaim the “soul” of agriculture from the industrial interests that have reshaped farming and the American farmer. In this panel, we will examine a variety of fictional representations of farming and the American farmer that explore the special status these metaphors have in US culture. Papers might cover topics such as fictional narratives about homesteading, the gap between myths of farming and agricultural techniques as they are exposed in fiction, stories that dramatize the conflict between environmentalists and farmers, the connection between immigration and farming in US fiction, themes of land ownership and the law in stories about family farms, and the role of farming in dispossessing First Nations. Analysis of films is welcome in this panel provided that the paper emphasizes characterization and narrative elements over matters of film form. Papers that explore the inter-relation of US metaphors for farming and farmers with other nations are also welcome, particularly when they challenge claims that US myths are “unique” in relation to other global cultures.

In this panel, we will examine a variety of fictional representations of farming and the American farmer that explore the special status these metaphors have in US culture. Papers might cover topics such as fictional narratives about homesteading, the gap between myths of farming and agricultural techniques as they are exposed in fiction, stories that dramatize the conflict between environmentalists and farmers, the connection between immigration and farming in US fiction, themes of land ownership and the law in stories about family farms, and the role of farming in dispossessing First Nations. Analysis of films is welcome in this panel provided that the paper emphasizes characterization and narrative elements over matters of film form. Papers that explore the inter-relation of US metaphors for farming and farmers with other nations are also welcome, particularly when they challenge claims that US myths are “unique” in relation to other global cultures.

Paper proposals can be submitted at https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16166

All submissions are due by September 30.

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #11)

Greetings from Chicago!  The long hot days of summer are here in the city.  Normally I’m an outdoors person, but the heat has kept me in the air conditioned confines of my apartment the past few weeks, reading through the giant stack of books gathered during the past academic year.  I’ve also been working on a few writing projects and tidying up my living space before heading off to Vermont to visit my parents.

My thoughts in the past few months have turned in a few different directions.  Foremost on my mind have been the violent events going on throughout the world.  Some faculty (the most vocal of which is Stanley Fish) would have us bar the doors to current events and personal experience and make the classroom a sacred space, a true ivory tower.  We all know that this isn’t possible.  Students and faculty live in a less than ideal world where the walls of the ivory tower are already so full of holes that using those walls for protection is absurd.  The struggle for me is thus not whether or not to bring these “outside matters” into the classroom but how to do so in a meaningful way.  Every teacher has a slightly different way of addressing this issue.  Here is my approach.  First, I ask myself what events most lend themselves to the skills I am teaching within my discipline (English) and within my course.  Then I consider what impact these issues will have on student interaction in the classroom.

The first set of questions is pedagogical in nature and forces me to reflect on the nature of what I think I’m doing in the classroom.  What are my goals for students at each stage of the course I’m teaching?  I haven’t taught a literature class in quite some time so my general list of goals is typically matched to the curriculum for a first year writing course, the predominant class that I teach at UIC.  During the fall, I will be teaching a research paper course so my general goals for students are: to understand why research is important, to learn what constitutes research, to create steps for constructing and managing a research project, and to understand how to integrate research into your own writing.  Nearly any set of current events or personal interests could be matched to these general goals.  However, I wanted to meet my students half-way and create a course focused on themes related to their academic (and perhaps personal) interests.  Since UIC’s students predominantly choose to major in engineering, business, and medicine, I selected “infrastructure” as the focus of my course.

Most people think of roads and bridges when they hear the term infrastructure.  They also might wonder what these structures have to do with current events at all.  My approach to infrastructure, however, goes beyond considering the physical environment.  I tell students in the first few weeks of class that infrastructure is best understood as any element of our community that if it were removed would make the community cease functioning properly.  This definition clearly includes elements of physical infrastructure but it also includes specialized workers and types of knowledge needed to keep a community operational as well as shifts needed in that knowledge base to meet changing times.  Using this expanded definition, it is possible for us to examine infrastructure in terms of our political system and also to scrutinize the role of race in determining how communities are built and maintained.  Flint, Michigan’s water supply problems provided me an excellent teaching tool last semester.  This coming academic year policing and crime will more than likely play a prominent role.  It’s no accident that violent crime in Chicago takes place predominantly in neighborhoods that have long been neglected by the city for infrastructure improvement.

Of course, my plans for the fall semester will be shaped by the students I teach and I won’t meet them for several more weeks.  In some semesters, I have students who live in the situations we are discussing in class.  They may or may not want to talk about the environment they experience day to day.  Embarrassment is just as powerful a motivator for what to talk or not talk about as trauma or fear.  Other semesters, I have students who live worlds away from urban neglect in well-tended suburbs hours distant from the city.  These students present a different challenge as they often hold the attitude that “Well, my parents succeeded.  Why can’t they?”  My task as I design my course is to find a way to reach both groups of students.  Those for whom the issues we discuss might be “too real” and those for whom it is just another segment in the news.

In all these instances, I try to be aware of the power dynamic present in the classroom.  This is why I am a cautious practitioner of using current events and personal experience in the classroom.  As their professor, I hold the ability to pass or fail these students.  My evaluation is always in the back of their minds.  No student should ever feel pressured to think or act the way I do.  If that is what they take away from my class, I’ve failed.  I want them to feel comfortable enough to disagree with me while at the same time learning to articulate in a reasonable way why they disagree.  Or, at the very least, to examine an angle of the issues discussed that didn’t originally occur to me.  Students often agree with the general framework of the course, but look at the details in a radically different way from me.  This turn of events makes me happy, provided their point of view is backed up with reasons and evidence.

I’m now reaching the end of this month’s blog post and will just share with you briefly one last thought that has been on my mind.  I’ve long felt self-conscious about my poor abilities in foreign languages so I’ve decided to do something about it this summer.  I’m studying French, a language that I first encountered in elementary and middle school and have studied on and off for years.  I’m using an app called Duolingo to get started.  I’ll let you know how the process is going in my next post and discuss the relationship of foreign languages and literatures to the study of English.

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #10)

Greetings from Chicago!

Summer is a strange time to be an academic.  Many in the general public imagine professors taking off for the beach or to country cabins to lounge about until the fall semester begins.  The reality, as I’m sure you all know, is considerably less romantic.

My spring semester finally ended in the middle of May.  I had papers from two composition classes and one course in literary theory to grade and then needed to go through my grading spreadsheets to calculate student final grades.  Once those final grades were calculated, I uploaded them and then faced the next challenge, answering student emails about their final grades.  I don’t know how many of you face this each semester, but I have at least five or six students each term who can’t understand why they didn’t receive an A.  These, of course, are usually the students with poor attendance records and even poorer writing.  Of course, in the corporatized world we live and work in, the attitude seems to be “I paid for an A.  Give it to me.”  Two of these students were persistent enough that I opted to meet with them to review their final papers.  They still weren’t happy with my decision, but I felt that I had acted in a professional manner dealing with their complaint.  That’s the best I could hope for in both cases.

After finishing up grading for the spring semester, my next task was as NEMLA area director.  I reviewed the session proposals for the 2017 conference in Baltimore.  This is a time consuming activity, but is generally enjoyable.  I’m always impressed at the wide range of research interests I see in these proposals.  The only distasteful part is having to reject proposals.  The careful vetting of proposals at this early stage, however, prevents having to deal with major problems later.  I always have an eye out for whether a session will garner paper submissions and participants.  I also try to imagine myself as a person submitting an abstract to a particular session.  Is the conceptual framework of that session clear?  Do I have an idea of the type of papers the session chair is looking for?  These are key questions that any conference session proposal should answer.

Acceptance and rejection emails for NEMLA sessions have now gone out and the Call for Papers is now open.  I have two sessions proposed.  One a panel session on the representation of agriculture in US fiction.  You can read the description and submit abstracts here.  The other is a roundtable on the teaching of 19th and 20th century war literature since 9/11.  You can read the description and submit abstracts here.  There are also a wide range of great sessions proposed for this year’s conference.  You can see all those descriptions here.

Once I finished reviewing session proposals for NEMLA, I got to work with Lisa Perdigao, the Cultural Studies area director to set up a Special Event speaker for Baltimore.  I think NEMLA members will enjoy the talk for 2017, which builds upon themes from this year’s conference speaker Jelani Cobb.

Then it was Memorial Day and my summer (in the conventional sense) could finally start.  Of course, now I have an essay to write that is due this fall and still need to attend bi-weekly placement essay readings for the First Year Writing Program as well as revamp my course syllabus for the fall.  But this is a state close to relaxation.  I also have enough money coming in each month, thanks to our current union contract, that I don’t need to find additional work this summer.  I know that I am blessed in this respect as many of my colleagues are looking for summer teaching or other work to fill the gap between now and September.  I just wish that I made enough money to take a real vacation.  It would also be nice to have a summer that didn’t turn into a research sabbatical for the next book or essay.

My blog post for this month is late due to all the busyness described above.  It’s also a bit somber as I re-read it.  This is due in large part to the sad state of affairs in Illinois.  We are still without a state budget and probably will continue to be until after the fall elections.  Who knows how many of our state colleges and university’s will still be around once that budget is passed. It’s also turning out to be an incredibly violent summer here in Chicago.  Austerity is starting to take its toll.

I hope your summer is off to a good start whatever you are doing.  Today I’m going to give myself permission to relax and recharge.  I think I’ll start with another cup of coffee and my knitting basket.  Yes, I knit.  We can talk more about that in another post.

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #9)

Greetings from Chicago!  The spring semester is almost over and faculty and students are preparing for summer break.  Of course, it feels more like winter here today as the temperatures in the city will be lucky to reach 48 degrees.  A good day to stay indoors and read.

Don’t forget that tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a session proposal to the NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore.  

Information on the types of sessions you might propose for the conference can be found here https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html  .

You can propose your sessions on the CFP website via this link  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.

In my last post, I combined a recap of the NEMLA 2016 Conference in Hartford with an examination of the broader theme–Why Write?  This theme seemed to dominate the conference sessions I attended.  This month I’d like to consider the related questions of how and why we read.

How we read in and out of the classroom was a question that came up frequently during the round table session I chaired in Hartford on reading American Literature with Digital Texts.  We looked at some of the formats in which electronic texts are distributed and how close reading techniques such as annotation can be used with them.  One of the more interesting trends explored was the use of software that allows collective annotation of electronic texts, specifically Lacuna Stories .  I’m not totally sure how to use this software, but it does seem to address what has long been one of my concerns with electronic texts.  Reading in the context of an English class requires an attention to language that goes beyond scanning a webpage for content.  We often call this special type of reading “close reading” without really thinking much about the mechanics involved in the process, aside from reading a text multiple times.  Annotation, however, is the crucial difference between casual reading and reading with a  purpose.  Lacuna Stories allows this process to transfer from the analog to a digital environment.  Even more importantly, it allows students and faculty to share those annotations (or not) and learn from each others reading process.  This is a great example of using technology to achieve a goal that might not be possible in an earlier classroom setting.

But why do we read in the first place and is there any connection between this activity as it happens outside the classroom as well as in?  I’ve been thinking about this question a lot because I’ve been teaching ENGL 240 this semester, Introduction to Literary Criticism and Critical Theory.  This course is required for all English majors and minors at UIC and it is presumed that this will be among their first English classes, preparing them for upper level surveys and seminars.  Finding a baseline for teaching students in this class is very difficult, as each student comes with a varied educational background.  Some of my students are transfers from community colleges who have extensive knowledge of how to read and write about fiction.  Others are just out of high school and haven’t read much fiction at all.  Add to that the groups of students who speak English as a second language and those who are interested in an English major or minor predominately for Professional Writing  skills (Corporate Communications, Public Relations, Journalism, etc.) and you have an almost impossible task staring at you.  First, to find out what prior knowledge this diverse group of students possesses and then to devise a course plan that works to build upon the commonalities in what these students know.

What I’ve found this semester, is that my students don’t read much fiction at all.  They watch a lot of fiction.  They even write a considerable amount.  But reading fiction, not so much.  This even includes what we might refer to disparagingly as “fan fiction” or “pulp fiction.”  My students watch their stories rather than engage them through the written word.  The challenge for me this semester has thus been to turn their attention to the written word and explain what to do with a fictional text (i.e. close reading) as they read.  Oddly enough, this experience has felt a lot like what I experienced studying Latin and Greek at UVM during my undergraduate years.  An intellectually stimulating exercise that in large part felt separated from the world around me.  I could escape for a few hours into the world of Livy, Vergil, and Catullus and not worry about current events.

I realize that at this point I’m starting to sound like “that” professor, vaguely luddite, who laments their student’s inability to perform at a level they deem acceptable.  If you read The Chronicle of Education at all, you know the type.  My colleagues have even asked me when I talk to them about the problems I’ve faced getting students to read carefully:  How is this any different from the way things have always been?  

My answer is, I don’t know.  Perhaps this problem has always been with us, but I feel like something has shifted.  I’ve taught at UIC for 15 years, part of that as a Graduate Student Instructor and part of that as a Lecturer.  During that time, the baseline I can assume for student knowledge has shifted away from text based narrative to alternative forms of storytelling.  In the meantime, English pedagogy has generally stood still.  That’s why what I’m teaching students feels more like Classics than English.

I continue to teach students how to read written language carefully in spite of my doubts and concerns because I believe in the power of imagination and the written word.  Most of the communication we encounter on a daily basis is obsessed with utility and the way things are now or could be in the near future.  Fiction (at its best) opens the door to a world we hardly thought possible.  It looks beyond the far horizon and asks Why Not?  My understanding is that University studies should prepare students to create a world that doesn’t yet exist rather than replicate the one that we have or tweak its existing parameters.  Fiction is crucial to that task.  And nothing, in this bibliophile’s opinion, makes that possible like sitting down and immersing yourself in a good book.

Now that I’m finished writing, I think that’s what I’ll do next.

Until Next Time…

John

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NEMLA 2017 Call for Sessions

The call for sessions at the NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore, MD is now available.  You can propose a traditional panel, a round table discussion, seminar, creative session, workshop, or poster session.  A description of each session type can be found on the NEMLA website at this link: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html

The deadline for submitting a session proposal is April 29.  To submit a proposal go to:  https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html

In the Anglophone/American Area, sessions are particularly sought for in these areas:

  • Fictional Depictions of the United States Civil War (especially those involving Baltimore or the “Border States”)
  • Scholarship on the life and works of Frederick Douglass
  • Maritime History as it relates to American Literature
  • Relationships between music and poetry
  • Scholarship on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe
  • Depictions of urban race relations in American fiction.

Sessions on other topics, of course, are welcome.  NEMLA is also committed to creating an inclusive environment that welcomes scholars regardless of their affiliation or employment status.  If you are a High School teacher, Independent Scholar, or Contingent Faculty member, please consider proposing a session on a topic of interest to you that you believe might have a broader interest among scholars.

I hope to see some familiar faces from Hartford in Baltimore and look forward to meeting new scholars at NEMLA 2017.

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #8)

Greetings from Chicago!  After a cold, wet day filled with rain and snow, the skies have cleared today and the sun is out.  Birds are singing and, dare I say it, Spring feels like it is soon on the way.  Hopefully there are signs of Spring wherever you are.

This month’s blog post is dedicated to a recap of the NEMLA 2016 conference, which this year was held in Hartford, CT.  My first conference as American/Anglophone Director was an exciting experience as I had the opportunity to participate in and hear panels on a wide variety of topics.  Now past-President of NEMLA, Ben Railton, also added to this year’s convention an exciting new element as scholars reached out to the community (especially high school teachers and students) to discuss issues of importance to us as thinkers and educators.  These community centered events were mostly held at the beautiful Mark Twain House, just in view of Hartford High School, although a number of scholars went to schools around the city to visit students.

Race, immigration, and the ongoing specter of “terrorism” were common themes across convention panels and special events.  Jelani Cobb, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, gave a powerful keynote address on how the events of the past few years have all but shattered the notion that the United States is a “post-racial” nation.  His contextualization of race relations in American culture challenged all of us in the room to find a way to create engaged scholarship that encourages our colleagues and students to move beyond the standard narratives used to describe race in American culture while continuing to work for racial justice.

Academic conferences are so large that each person’s experience of them is unique.  Beyond the larger themes I noticed in this year’s convention, there was an undercurrent to the sessions I attended that brought me back to a question central to the study of literature.  That question was Why Write?

At the Special Event for the American and British areas of NEMLA, Porochista Khakpour, currently a writer in residence at Bard College, answered that question in a wide variety of ways but kept coming back to the reality that often we write to survive.  Creative people, and I would like to think that all of you are creative people, feel a deep need to explain their experiences to others.  This desire often presses up against our resistance to explain. In Khakpour’s case that resistance stemmed from her frustration at being constantly asked to explain what it means to be “Iranian” and what it’s really like in Iran.  Fearful both of cliche as well as over-exposure of personal treasures too precious to share with just anyone, Khakpour described her writing process as a constant push pull between the stories inside her that demand to be told and the pain of telling those stories.  Yet the telling of those stories, as the conversation after the talk made clear, brings us closer together as humans who ultimately have more in common than talk of our ethnic, racial, and sexual divisions might suggest.

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel discussed this issue of writing to survive in a different context.  A member of the Mohegan Tribe, Zobel’s life and writing belies the myth, propagated by James Fenimore Cooper among others, that Native Americans are either vanished or in the process of vanishing.  Her fiction, most of it aimed at Young Adult readers, works towards the goal of helping young Native Americans of whatever tribe to make sense of their ancestry.  Ironically, this is a goal that touches me personally.  I shared with Zobel towards the end of her talk that in middle school I went an assembly in the school gym where we heard the stories told by Abenaki historian and writer Joseph Bruhac.  If you’ve ever met Bruhac, he is a very engaging storyteller and I couldn’t help but share with my mother how excited I was to hear him tell his tribal tales.  She then told me that her mother, my maternal grandmother, was Abenaki from the St. Francis band of the tribe in Quebec.  This surprised me greatly at the time and still does.  It was another example from my personal history of the problematic concept of “authenticity.”  My identity is composed of at least six different ethnic identities, not all of them unambiguously white.  Which one is the authentic me?  This question is especially difficult as to the eyes of the world I’m just “white.”  Zobel’s characters struggle with issues of mixed-identity in their own ways.  I look forward to reading more of her work as I’ve just started reading Wabanaki Blues.

I could give many more examples of the ways in which presenters addressed the question of Why Write, but the two above made the most lasting impression on my mind while the others remain shadows at the margins of my memory.  If you had a sense of a theme linking the sessions you attended at NEMLA 2016, feel free to comment on this post.  As I said before, the experience of a conference as large as NEMLA is highly subjective.

With Hilda Chacon, Professor of Spanish at Nazareth College, now serving as NEMLA President, I look forward to an equally engaging conference in Baltimore, MD in March of 2017.  The Call for Sessions is now live for the 2017 conference.  If you have a seminar, roundtable, or panel to propose, you can do so here http://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.

Sessions are welcome in any area.  As American/Anglophone Director, I’m always looking for a wide variety of sessions that reflect as much as possible the full range of scholarship in American Literature today.  Of particular interest to me at this year’s convention are sessions on these topics:

  • Fictional Depictions of the United States Civil War (especially those involving Baltimore or the “Border States”)
  • Scholarship on the life and works of Frederick Douglass
  • Maritime History as it relates to American Literature
  • Relationships between music and poetry
  • Scholarship on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe
  • Depictions of urban race relations in American fiction.

Sessions on other topics, of course, are welcome.  NEMLA is also committed to creating an inclusive environment that welcomes scholars regardless of their affiliation or employment status.  If you are a High School teacher, Independent Scholar, or Contingent Faculty member, please consider proposing a session on a topic of interest to you that you believe might have a broader interest among scholars.

The deadline for session proposals is APRIL 29.  Calls for papers to include in these sessions will begin at the end of May or beginning of June.

I hope to see some familiar faces from Hartford in Baltimore and look forward to meeting new scholars at NEMLA 2017.

My next blog post will return to a teaching related theme, Why Read?, and share some of the insights from the roundtable session I chaired at NEMLA 2016 on teaching American Literature with Digital Texts.

Until next time….

John

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #7)

Greetings from Chicago!  If you’ve followed the news, you know that it is not a great time for higher education in Illinois.  Hopefully the situation is less chaotic in your state.  These are challenging years for scholars in literature and language and we need to organize more than ever to advocate for the importance of what we do.  I hope this year’s conference in Hartford, Connecticut will help energize NEMLA members to keep up the good fight.

Last month I promised to provide my readers an sketch of my current research.  If you’ve perused my blog or (hopefully) read my book, then you know my current interest in the lives of soldiers after war.  In an essay I just completed for a collection on gender, war, and the U.S. military I highlight the semantic distinction between calling someone a “soldier” and calling someone a “veteran.”  The former suggests a person still in uniform while the later leads us to assume that military service is a part of their past.  Although it is hard to parse the difference sometimes between these words in scholarly discourse let alone in the general public, noticing and maintaining this distinction is an important part of my work.  These words serve as a reminder that the legacy of war is not simply measured in treaties and deaths.  The legacy of war walks all around us.  Calling someone a veteran implies an open-ended commitment to creating meaning.  Calling them a soldier places them within a clearly defined frame of reference and distances them and their service from society.

I’m not totally clear on how these insights might apply to naval personnel.  One of my students, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, pointed out to me that my work emphasizes ground troops more than sailors.  He also reminded me that two of our nation’s longest wars don’t have many recognized battles at sea, the Cold War and the current War on Terror.  His observation is a reminder to me that when a scholar is paying attention to one set of connotations it is possible to miss another.  It’s also an excellent example of why the term veteran makes a society so uneasy.  The story is still be written through conversations between those who served, liked my student, and those who did not, like myself.  Guilt sometimes makes us long for myth.  It requires less introspection.

My interest in veterans began with a much larger interest in the metaphors we use that take on a mythic status through repeated use.  It wasn’t until I was pretty far advanced into my research that I realized what I was doing was classic American Studies work along the lines of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx.  Veterans became my metaphor turned myth, a blank slate upon which society could project its hopes and fears.  The next phase of my research will involve examining a myth closely associated with that of the veteran in United States culture, at least up to the Second World War–the Yeoman Farmer.

At this point in the conception of my latest project, I’m focused on analyzing two images. The first is the Winslow Homer painting, The Veteran In a New Field, that graces the cover of my book New Men and also appears in chapter two.  Homer’s painting serves as the bridge between my previous research and this new area I’m exploring.  In that image we see the soldier casting his uniform jacket down on the earth, rolling up his sleeves, and preparing to reap a seemingly endless field of wheat.  The problem with this image, as I mention in my analysis of the painting in New Men, is that the solitary labor imagined in Homer’s image was not the reality for men in the nineteenth-century United States.  Machinery had already begun to take on much of the harvesting work once undertaken by human power.  Furthermore, in those communities that still relied solely on human labor for harvesting, more than one man would be needed to cut and bundle the grain.  Homer’s painting thus evokes for viewers a myth that they know is a myth but still feels powerful.  Solitary labor in the earth as part of a simple chain of production, distribution, and consumption.  This pre-capitalist world was all but dead in 1865.  However, the viewers wanted to believe not simply for the sake of their national values, which depended on the Yeoman Farmer and all he represented, but also because it represented an image of war smoothly turned to peace.  The sword changed to plowshare (Isaiah) and the warrior come home to toil in the earth (Cincinnatus).

I wondered looking at that image why so many veterans returned from the war would choose a life of toil on small homesteads, especially those who had no prior connection to the land.  My answer seemed to be that it was a healing myth.  A way home from the battlefield and a visual assurance to civilians that the war was over.

The second image comes from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters From An American Farmer. (Note:  Here I am citing the Penguin Edition, 1981.) Imagined as a series of letters explaining America to those in Europe, his third letter, “What is An American?,” provides a powerful verbal metaphor.  That of people as plants moved from one soil to another:

“In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together…Urged by a variety of motives, here they came.  Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men:  in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger and war; but now, by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!” (Crevecoeur, 68-69).

Farming provides a healing myth for the returning veteran.  It also provides in this instance a way to imagine the connection of immigrants to their new home.  “Ubi panis ibi patria” (69).  Where your bread is there is your country, Crevecoeur proclaims.  How much better that bread when it is made from wheat grown on your own land.  Suddenly you feel “rooted” to your surroundings and begin to flourish.

Soldiers toiling for the state.  Immigrants tilling the soil.  The two are cut from the same cloth.  Both are attempts to answer the question that has puzzled decades of U.S. citizens, What is an American?  Each of the images (verbal and visual) that I have cited above lay claim to the same answer.  Till the soil and then you will understand.  Then you will be rooted to the land and will be one of us.

Obviously there are limitations to this metaphor.  But I’ve gone on long enough.

That’s all for this post.  In my next entry I will give a recap of this year’s NEMLA convention.  Hopefully I will see some of you in Hartford.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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