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

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

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

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

All proposals are due by September 30.  

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

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

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

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

All submissions are due by September 30.

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #10)

Greetings from Chicago!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…..

John Casey

 

 

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time…

John

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NEMLA 2017 Call for Sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time….

John

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time….

John Casey

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