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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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #15)

Greetings from Chicago!

Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside.  From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus.  Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families.  I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend.  After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses.  Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.

For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses.  Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public.  Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand.  These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me.  First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing.  Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.

Let’s start with the issue of communication.  Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars.  One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading.  Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology.  They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German).  When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated.  However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex.  In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature.  Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work.  Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”

Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing.  I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre.  But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field.  I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight.  Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me.  Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience.  It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups.  Lecturing is not just a technique.  It is a tone of voice.  To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order.  Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking.  Everyone is an expert in something.  Share that expertise.

Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline.  In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read.  It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience.  Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression.  My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications.  I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature.  We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.”  I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?).  In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze.  Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination.  Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.

None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship.  For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom.  Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today.  As are book clubs.  Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public.  I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works.  Obviously, however, this is not enough.  What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning.  Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree.  Improve what is there and expand it.  We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts.  Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?

I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post.  But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December.  I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years.  I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends.  I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.

Until next time…

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #14)

Greetings from Chicago!

The leaves are starting to change color on campus and there is a chill in the air.  Fall is slowly coming here to the windy city.  We’re now more than half way through the semester at UIC and it shows on the faces of students and faculty.  Everyone is ready for a break.  If nothing else, it will get us away from the constant noise of construction that follows us from one space on campus to another.  In the meantime, we press on.

My last blog post focused on my research.  This one will be a bit of a grab bag.  One of the major downsides to being a Full-Time Nontenured Faculty member is the lack of time for research.  This semester I’m teaching four First Year Composition classes and its hard to find time in between course prep, grading, and meeting with students to read the sources I’ve collected from the library for my second book project.  Right now, I’m slogging my way through an economic history of farming written by Willard W. Cochrane.  His text is giving me a useful overview of the shift in farming practices over the course of US history. Careful notes are helping me remember where I left off each time I set the book down to counsel a student on the best way to format a literature review.  I recognize, of course, that having any time at all to research is an oddity for most NTT Faculty, especially those who teach part-time.  My situation as a Lecturer is far from ideal, but it is certainly an improvement to the days when I was paid by the course and had to travel in between campuses.

As with most things in life, the academic profession is a series of pluses and minuses.  The minuses for me are the stagnant pay and lack of research opportunities.  The pluses are the security of a yearly contract, benefits, course schedule, and now an increasing recognition of my past research on campus.  It might not seem like much to outsiders, but my being assigned to teach a section of the Sophomore level American Literature survey (ENGL 243) is a major advancement not just for me but a sign of how work conditions are improving for NTT faculty in our department.  I’ve also been invited to a faculty author’s reception hosted by the UIC Chancellor’s office to celebrate the publication of my first book (New Men) last year.  This also is a major advancement in NTT conditions on campus since I was not recognized for a long time as a faculty member.  Finally, there’s the fact that I am writing this blog as part of my duties as Director of American Literature for NEMLA, a position that has traditionally been held by TT faculty.  So life is not all gloom and doom for those off the tenure track.  Progress, I often have to remind myself, is incremental and not necessarily linear.  I continue to advocate for NTT faculty and for nontraditional students on campus, planting seeds for trees I will probably never see fully grown.

Part of what has helped me become more integrated into my campus is hutzpah.  If there’s something I’m interested in, I find a way to get involved.  This was the case with a recent event discussing the construction plans for a new classroom building on the UIC campus.  I saw the faculty massmail advertising the event and showed up, the only English faculty member and probably the only NTT faculty member in the room.  The usual types were well-represented, of course, various Vice-Chancellors and diverse Deans of subject areas few can adequately comprehend.  There were also a few TT faculty from Math and Chemistry as well as Engineering and Social Sciences.  During this session, the designers explained the overall goal of their plan.  They want to design a classroom that encourages “student-centered” learning.  Normally phrases like that give me the creeps.  They have this “edu-speak” ring to them that is common amongst folks who talk a lot about education but have never stepped into a classroom.  This presentation, however, held my attention because it focused on how the physical design of a classroom might change (in a positive way) how faculty teach.

Physical design of classroom space at UIC is a frequent topic of conversation among our faculty.  Usually in the form of complaints about how a classroom’s designs prohibit us from doing the type of teaching we would like to do.  For years I’ve wanted to experiment with multi-modal composition in my writing classrooms but have been stymied by the lack of a good computer and projector to exhibit projects, poor wi-fi reliability, and classrooms that are too small for students to move around in comfortably to work.  Our buildings at UIC were designed for an era when the lecture was king.  In spite of our best efforts to increase the discussion/activity functions in teaching, the rooms often lead us back to the lecture because it’s easier to do so.  So what would a class that makes lecturing hard if not impossible look like?  I saw a few examples of this in the presenter’s mock up drawings.

The example most relevant to the size of the courses I teach (18-25 students) was a room that could hold a maximum of 35 students.  That room had a white board in the front, a fixed computer podium, projector and interactive screen (i.e. a screen you can write on with dry erase markers).  Students sat at square tables made from joining together two rectangular ones.  Four students to a table.  These were arranged throughout the room.  On the side walls were touch screen televisions that could be used by students for break out sessions.  Each television was connected to the main projector in the room as well as to the internet.

The whiteboard, podium, and projector set up still make it possible for a faculty member to lecture, but it is harder for students to see the material.  They need to move around because they don’t sit in fixed rows oriented towards the front board.  The room is also longer than it is wide, making it difficult to project your voice from front to back.  Consequently, this room discourages faculty from talking to the class as a whole and encourages them to move away from the podium to walk among their students and check in with individual groups.  This is something that I already try to do in my composition classes.  The square footprint of our classrooms, however, make it harder for me to do this.  The room fits exactly 24 students (according to fire code) and that is the number I have.  Add backpacks and winter coats and it soon becomes impossible for anyone to move about in the room.  A 35 person room with 24 students in it would be like heaven.  Adding technology to the room and more natural light would simply be a bonus.  I can imagine providing students in a classroom such as this with a task to complete in a set period of time.  I would then check in with each group as they work and show the entire class particularly unique methods to addressing the task.

Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to the design proposals I saw.  One is the assumption that all our students have laptops or tablets that function like laptops.  The digital divide is real on our campus and is only slowly being addressed.  You can’t complete homework assignments on a  smartphone even though many students try to do this.  Another is maintenance.  Lincoln Hall is currently one of the most advanced classroom buildings on our campus and its technology is fast becoming outdated and very beat up through heavy use.  I’m constantly having to reconnect or jiggle loose cables and find adaptors to connect new devices that no longer have VGA or standard sized HDMI ports.  Finally, design alone cannot drive pedagogy.  It can force us to think more carefully about how we teach, but only faculty meeting with other faculty can hash out what the role of the lecture should be in each course and discipline and how it should relate to more active learning techniques.

All of this brings me to my conclusion for this post, which is a question.  What does your ideal classroom look like?  Mine would be large enough to have zones for distinct modes of learning.  One zone would have a circle of desk/chair combos near a white board for lecture/discussion.  Another zone would have tables and chairs for writing and research.  And yet another would have comfortable chairs for students to sit and read, thinking through their understanding of a concept.  Students could move freely through this space depending on what task they needed to accomplish.  My syllabus would reflect this.  Each day would emphasize a certain mode of learning and blend them together as needed.  At least one wall would provide natural light that could be filtered or blocked to allow showing films and videos.  There would also be ample storage for student backpacks and coats so that they don’t have to be placed on the floor.

Multiple focal points in a room.  Multiple modes of learning in a syllabus.  These are my goals.  We’ll see if the new classroom building UIC constructs makes this possible.  In the meantime, we make do with the tools at hand.

Until next time….

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #13)

Greetings from Chicago!

Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance.  In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus.  One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall).  Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window.  A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal.  It’s very hard to focus in my office.  I’ll be glad when they’re done.

Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing.  I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out.  All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment.  This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive.  Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing  cost in housing, healthcare, and services.  Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring.  And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment.  Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior.  But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin.  I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”

In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests.  For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for?  You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans.  I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves.  My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way.  It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war.  Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming.  Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war.  In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain.  Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen.  These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.

Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming.  One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus.  Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict.  In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period.  Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.

All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil.  Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture.  As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape.  Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone.  Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity.  Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States.  One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.

Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book.  As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture.  Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.”  Farming  and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century.  The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.”  Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.

But what takes root and how?  What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not?  This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle.  When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration.  Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants.  Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.

I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment.  Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship.  (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.)  William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason.  In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.”  He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).  

The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US.  I will share what I learn with you on this blog.  I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems.  If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.

Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

 

 

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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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