NeMLA 18 Special Event

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #23)

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View Outside My Classroom Window. February 22, 2018. Photo by John Casey.

Greetings from Chicago!

Looking at my list of Blog Posts, I see that it has been since October that I’ve last written anything for this column. I guess the easiest way to explain that (aside from Holiday planning and travel) is that I didn’t have much to write about in those intervening months.

Today I decided to open my computer and write what will be my second to last post as Director of Anglophone/American Literature at NeMLA. My position ends at this year’s conference in Pittsburgh.

Before I launch into the topic for this post (the role of the imagination in literary studies), I just want to take a moment to thank a few people who have made my experience as Director incredibly rewarding. First, there’s Ben Railton, who put into my head the idea that I could self-nominate for this position and actually get elected. Then there are my fellow Director’s Susmita Roye and Lisa Perdigao both of whom I have had the privilege of collaborating with on Special Events programing. I learned a lot from their past experience. Thanks to Carine Mardorossian for being so patient with me as a newbie to NeMLA and to Brandi So who helped me with more than a few software glitch issues. Finally, I’d like to thank the members of NeMLA, without whom there wouldn’t be a need for a board at all. It’s been a privilege to serve you in the role of Director and a real treat to get to view the session proposals for the entire conference. Let no one tell you that literary studies isn’t strong as a field. It’s simply evolving (perhaps a bit slowly) to meet the times.

I hope to meet some of my readers in Pittsburg and hear the wonderful research projects you are working on. Remember to look for my signature bow tie. : )

Several semesters ago, I taught a version of a course on Literary Criticism and Literary Theory that began with a pair of essays. One was by Susan Sontag and the other by Jean Paul Sartre. In the first of these essays, Sontag decried the violence of literary analysis as it is taught in schools, ripping apart a work of art to see how it works rather than appreciating it for what it is–a mode of expression where the parts are greater than the whole and meaning can never fully be discerned. She made the daring claim that we should simply learn to emotionally engage with art as art rather than forcing it to mean something. Sartre, in contrast, argued that art and artists had an obligation to engage their audience to effect change in the world. (It’s not accidental that Sartre is probably better known and understood for his fiction than his philosophical treatises.)

These essays were meant to provoke a semester long conversation on what exactly this thing we call “literature” is and what as dedicated readers we are supposed to do with it. Not surprisingly, we came to no consensus on these issues. Here are how my thoughts have evolved on the subject since I first chose to introduce it in this class.

On the one hand, I find myself agreeing with Sontag. Poems, Short Stories, Novels, all the ways that humans can be creative are not like machines that can be ripped apart and studied for how and why they work. Perhaps the best critique of this reductionist approach to literature comes from Edgar Allan Poe when he explains his poem “The Raven.”

Yet, on the other hand, I can’t help but feel drawn to Sartre’s perspective that no form of communication is disinterested. Even artists want something from us.

How do I reconcile these twin beliefs? I focus on characters in fiction who become more real to us than the people we see on the streets every day.

This semester I am teaching an Introduction to American Literature course. I’ve always been committed to teaching works by lesser known and local authors. This spring I chose to meet that goal by teaching a course on Chicago Literature.

So far we have read poems by Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks. Works by contemporary poets Eve Ewing and Kevin Coval are yet to come. We’ve also read novels by Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) and Richard Wright (Native Son) and still have works by Nelson Algren and Bill Hillmann waiting for us towards the semester’s end.

Since our classroom looks out on the loop and the Sears Tower, it’s not hard for us to envision the world these writer’s create.

Teaching the Sandburg poem “Halsted Street Car,” I told my students to think of their morning commute. How many of us have seen the exhausted workers whose faces are “tired of wishes / empty of dreams.”

Reading Sister Carrie, I asked them to imagine her walking through the State Street shopping corridor, arm in arm with her dapper salesman boyfriend Charles Drouet. Who, I asked, are the Carrie’s they see walking that same street today? Where are the Drouet’s? The materialist desires both represent are far from gone. Otherwise, why would the stores still be there?

With Native Son, we reflected this week on the legacy of the Kerner Report and the growing number of black males in prison. I asked my students to find cases similar to that of Bigger Thomas and they delivered. I asked them to imagine what Bigger’s life would be like without racial barriers and we couldn’t. Even in our imagination he remained a criminal, just maybe not a double murderer.

Now as we move on to Gwendolyn Brooks, we are considering the role of black women in the worn out communities of the South and West Sides who are asked to hold the tattered fabric of community together against tremendous odds.

I see Sister Carrie and Charles Drouet, Bigger Thomas and his mother, Sandburg’s Contemporary Bunkshooter, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Sadie and Maude and Chocolate Mabbie. I see them all when I walk the streets of my Chicago.

And what do these fictional characters become real mean to me?

First, they remind me to be careful. That it is easy for the imagination to wander into the realm of stereotype and through that engage in prejudiced actions.

Second, they remind me that although Chicago is a city that isn’t kind to fools and where a wrong turn can lead to a quick end, it is also a city of resilience and incredible kindness (especially among those who have nothing). Some of the kindest and most decent people I have meet are from areas in the South Side that outsiders are warned to stay way from.

And third, they remind me that the imagination is about envisioning what isn’t there or what might be and not simply a way to see “what is” in a different light. One persons’ realism, after all, is another person’s utopia.

As a teacher, I never know what my student’s will take away from my classes. Teaching literature itself can be as unpredictable as the art we examine. I do hope, however, that my students will think about the thorny issue of how “art follows life” and use that as a spur for action. To create the neighborhoods they want to live in rather than driving over the same damn potholes their grandparents cursed at.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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Review: Chicago Renaissance by Liesl Olson

Ask someone what comes to mind when they think of Chicago literature and they are bound to resurrect the usual suspects such as Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, and Nelson Algren. They might throw in Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright for good measure if they know anything about the city’s tortured racial past. But modernism? Probably not.

How many readers, let alone residents of Chicago, for instance, know that that the 1913 Armory Show (often viewed as the debut moment of modern art) made a stop at the Art Institute of Chicago or that Gertrude Stein’s 1934 tour brought her to Marshall Field’s on State Street for a book signing where crowds waiting to meet her forced the temporary closure of part of the store?

These are just a few of the pleasant discoveries one makes in reading Liesl Olson’s new book Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale University Press 2017).

Dr. Olson is currently Director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry Library of Chicago and has written extensively on modernism. That knowledge comes through in the writing and endnotes. Her book shows how Chicago’s perceived status as “second city” in terms of cultural influence actually served it well allowing local patrons of the arts (many of them women) to promote new trends in the arts rather than feeling pressure to preserve the venerable aesthetics of an earlier age.

Dr. Olson introduces readers, probably for the first time, to such figures as Harriet Monroe (founder of Poetry magazine), Fanny Butcher (literary editor for the Chicago Tribune), and Bobsy Goodspeed (President of the Arts Club from 1932-1940).

Even though the book is about the artists who created their own brand of modernism in relation to Chicago, these patrons of the arts steal the show. They serve as a reminder of how literary history is shaped by those who promote various artists and that many of those promoters are not faculty at colleges and universities. It is also a sad reminder of how women’s role in literary history (then and now) is too often overshadowed by that of men.

In fact, a recurring theme in Olson’s book seems to be the resistance of institutional repositories of culture (such as the male dominated universities) to changes in the arts taking place in the early 20th century and the contrasting attitude of the non-academic reader (many of them women) to such difficult writers as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Non specialist readers in Chicago seemed to welcome modernist fiction as a movement that better reflected the changes they felt were occurring (good and ill) in their world.

The book is structured in a manner that will be familiar to any reader of academic studies with an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. What makes this book unique, however, are the “interludes” between each chapter that present a scene connected in some way to the previous chapter as well as the one to follow. These bridges between chapters (rather than distracting from the analytical and narrative trajectory of the book) bring the moments Dr. Olson describes to life.

Chicago Renaissance is a delight to read as well as a revelation for anyone who thinks they understand the literary history of Chicago. It could not have come at a better time for me as I’m teaching a course on Chicago Literature this spring at UIC, but it is a book with something of interest for more than teachers and scholars.

Chicago Renaissance is a fitting homage to the readers, patrons, publishers, and distributers that make literature possible in the first place. A nuanced examination of the complicated relationships between artists and the marketplace. What better place to examine that relationship than in Chicago, once referred to as “the heart of American Materialism.”

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #22)

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UIC East Campus Quad (photo by John Casey)

Greetings from Chicago!

After an extended period of warm weather, fall has made its appearance in the upper midwest.  It’s now the tenth week of the fall semester on campus and this semester has been an incredibly busy one for me.

As usual in the fall, I’m teaching four courses instead of my usual three to meet the greater than anticipated demand of undergraduate enrollments.  All four are Composition I courses and focus on analyzing genres of writing and formulating arguments.  My students are finishing up a group project on a Code of Conduct for students on campus and are now beginning an Opinion Piece on immigration law.

In addition to my undergraduate teaching, I also spent seven weeks working as Interim Program Coordinator for Graduate Studies in English, helping graduate students prepare for preliminary exams and the job market.

These commitments on campus have kept me from doing much else (including writing a blog post).  Today is the first time in some time that I’ve been able to turn my thoughts to issues not related to student reading, writing, and advising.

What I’d like to talk about this month is the term “Independent Scholar” and how it reflects the need for a change in how scholars and scholarship are understood in the US academic context.

I owe this topic to Megan Kate Nelson, a historian of the post-Civil War Era United States, who gave up a tenure track job to speak and write outside of a university context.  She wrote a blog post in September of this year titled “Hey Academics, Please Stop Calling Me an ‘Independent Scholar” that got me thinking about how and why institutional affiliations matter in the creation and distribution of knowledge and what the future of that system might be as the ranks of academic labor continue to be filled by part-time and teaching intensive positions.

Scholars have always written and discussed their work outside of an academic context.  These have been, historically, the true public intellectuals.  What seems new, however, is the obsession (at least amongst academic circles) of qualifying the status of such writers and speakers as “Independent Scholars.”

To a certain extent, this sobriquet makes sense.  Universities and colleges are obsessed with branding in an era of scarce resources.  What better way to brand than have faculty travel around the globe to present their research with an institutional name prominently displayed on their book jackets, name tags, and event brochures?

The moniker of Independent Scholar becomes a way of simultaneously welcoming “outsiders” into academic discussions on a topic of common interest while at the same time reminding them that they are, in fact, outsiders.  Their research is not connected to a brand and (sotto voce) perhaps not as worthy of our attention as this other material vouched for by an institutional affiliation.

Most of my readers won’t be shocked to hear that academic life retains something of the men’s club environment of the 19th and early 20th century.  When you’re in you’re in.  When you’re out you’re out.  No amount of “Gatsby-like” success will change that.

What makes this problem particularly acute right now, however, and demanding of every scholar’s attention, is the continued decline of the tenured professorate with its emphasis on research, teaching, and service and its replacement by a precariate whose primary tasks are teaching and service.

Amongst the precariate, I enjoy a privileged position.  I work full time (3/3) with benefits and I’ve been at my job long enough to obtain a two year contract.  However, my teaching load is predominantly First Year Writing, which makes up the majority of courses taught in my department, and comes with an expectation of departmental service.  Except in the fall when I teach four courses for the extra income, my teaching load is not especially burdensome.  Nor is the departmental service requirement.  Right now my main tasks are to evaluate one other colleague’s teaching and serve on the Steering Committee, a position I was recently elected to.

The pressures I face are  primarily income related, the need to find additional work to supplement my full time income so I can afford to live in Chicago, and course selection related.  I tend to teach the same courses on repeat and it takes effort to not get burned out on them.  Especially when I’m teaching a group of students who often need a lot of additional help in order to succeed.

Into this hectic schedule, I somehow manage to shoehorn my research, usually in the spring semester and also over the summer.  However, that research doesn’t count towards anything with my employer.  I am evaluated primarily on my teaching evaluations and observations as well as the record of my departmental service.  Thus, for me at least, research is a hobby that I (sort of) can indulge thanks to my job.

I wonder how many scholars are in a similar position with research relegated to a hobby they do in spite of their work rather than as a part of their work.  I also wonder how many scholars are doing their work mostly as a way to keep and advance their employment position.  I can count on both hands the number of disappointing monographs I’ve read by authors who clearly needed the book for a tenure file or to move up in status from visiting to permanent faculty.

The pressure that the changing professorate is placing on research will someday (probably soon) make us all “Independent Scholars.”  As a result, I think it’s time for us to consider Dr. Nelson’s request that we drop institutional affiliation from our conference badges and programs and refocus our attention on the point of scholarship in the first place–the ideas.

One of the things I enjoy about attending conferences such as NeMLA is the ability to be judged on the merit of my research and writing rather than my pedigree.  At my home institution, I tend to be invisible amongst the research crowd because I’m part of the “teaching pool” assigned to manage courses no one else wants to teach but that must be taught.  Not so at NeMLA.  I (at least) don’t care what your employment status is.  I want to geek out with you for a while on the ideas you care most passionately about.

Taking away one more barrier to participation is the least that academic events can do at a time when financial pressures make it difficult if not impossible for people to attend these gatherings.

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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My Spring 2018 Courses

ENGL 161 

CRN 14458 – TR 9:30-10:45
CRN 14460 – TR 3:30-4:45

Everything By Design: Writing About Chicago’s Infrastructure

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Infrastructure is all around you. The roads you drive to work or school, the water that comes out of the faucet in your home, the lights you turn on when it gets dark, and even the schools you have attended are all examples of infrastructure. These intricately designed systems for organizing space are fundamental parts of our lives that we often take for granted until they malfunction. But what is the logic behind the systems that make up infrastructure and how were those systems created? What is the future for infrastructure, particularly in the Chicago area? These are just a few of the questions we will explore in this class as we use the subject of infrastructure to learn some basic skills of academic research and writing.

 

 

ENGL 109

CRN 24547 / 24548 – TR 11:00-12:15

You Were Never Here: Author’s Writing In And About Chicago

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What comes to mind when you hear the word Chicago?  For some it’s stockyards and steel mills, but these have been gone from the city’s landscape for nearly three generations.  For others it’s the stories of violent crime, but Al Capone is a distant memory and many neighborhoods are not touched by the gang activity on the evening news.  Some see the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods with different ethnic backgrounds at their core, but rising rents and mortgage prices have turned many ethnic neighborhoods into urban shopping malls. The Chicago that seems ‘real’ to you depends on what you already believe before picking up the book.  In this class, we will examine the strong emotions that readers have about Chicago and the narratives that either seem real or fake to those reading them.  Readings for the class will include classic novels such as Sister Carrie and Native Son alongside more recent works by local authors such as  The Old Neighborhood.  We will also read poems by Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam founder Kevin Koval’s recent collection A People’s History of Chicago.  

 

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #21)

Greetings from Chicago!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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NeMLA CFP Reminder (Submissions Due 9/30)

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

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

What Counts As A War Story?  

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

Material Culture Studies and American Literature

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

Teaching Disability in American Literature

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

What Happened to the Reader?

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

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

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

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

John

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #20)

Greetings From Chicago!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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Lions Led By Donkeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #19)

Greetings from Chicago!

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

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

What Counts As A War Story?  

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

Material Culture Studies and American Literature

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

Teaching Disability in American Literature

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

What Happened to the Reader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time…..

John Casey

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