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.
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…..
Greetings From Chicago!
After an amazing NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore, MD, I am back in cold, damp, and drizzly Chicago getting ready for the school week ahead. Special thanks to NEMLA Executive Director Carine Mardorossian and her staff for ensuring that everything ran smoothly. I think I can say without exaggeration that this is the best convention of the organization I have attended.
My live tweeting skills are non-existent, but I did manage to tweet after the fact some highlights from the sessions I attended. In my blog post for this month, I intend to do something similar, giving a recap of my convention experience and the conversations I was privileged to have with scholars during sessions but also out in the hallways and at the networking tables set up in the exhibit hall.
Thursday was spent on board related issues and a bit of sight seeing in the afternoon. Former NEMLA President Ben Railton and I enjoyed the exhibits at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. I can’t speak for Ben (if you’re reading this feel free to make a comment) but I enjoyed the “living history” aspect of the museum as it tried to demonstrate the ways in which the past shaped the present culture of Maryland’s African-American population in positive and not just negative ways. Walking through these exhibits was like being invited to a sift through a family’s private collection of heirlooms. Many thanks to the staff at the museum for being so welcoming. I really enjoyed the artifacts related to Frederick Douglass’s life and time in Baltimore.
After the museum, I went to see the Baltimore maritime museum. I especially enjoyed my visit the USS Constellation, which dovetailed nicely with the Lewis museum’s exhibit on ship caulking (Douglass’s job in the Baltimore shipyards). The staff on the ship were highly knowledgeable in matters of 19th century nautical history and explained to me how a ship like the USS Constellation was built and maintained. Walking through the sailor’s quarters in the berthing deck gave me a greater appreciation for Melville’s fiction, especially his great but hardly ever read novel White Jacket. Being a sailor was (and in many ways still is) a hard life.
On Friday I began my day with a panel on poetry and had the pleasure of meeting Ron Ben-Tovim from the University of Haifa. Our paths crossed several times on Friday and Saturday as we went to many of the same sessions. He raised some very interesting questions about War Literature and the ways in which we as readers should respond to veteran’s writing. In particular, he brought up the issue of whether veterans got what they were looking for by enlisting. This, of course, raises the prior issue of what exactly they were looking for and whether their quest was directed into the appropriate channel. He also brought up the valid point that some people enjoy killing others and find liberation in the suspension of norms that is allowed by war. In addition, he reiterated a point made by Paul Fussell in his discussion of his own service in WWII that war can be both terrifying and exhilirating at the same time. It’s more complicated that being simply good or bad.
Many of these issues came up in conversation with attendees of the roundtable session I chaired and presented at on the issue of Teaching War Literature Since 9/11. Special thanks to Brittany Hirth and Lea Williams for joining me on that panel. For those who were unable to attend, my slides are available in the Writing Sample section of this website.
I also attended a session on Friday about Death and Dying (kind of a morbid subject I know) but gained a useful insight from Courtney Adams of Texas A&M University on Fight Club, a book and author that I have always had trouble connecting with. The self-destructive hero trope she analyzed says a lot about the status of masculinity in the contemporary culture of the United States today and the need to reimagine what it means to be a man.
I also had the opportunity on Friday to chair a panel Agriculture as a theme in US fiction. There were four amazing papers on very divergent topics and authors. I was left at the end of this session with a curious thought about the connection between Deep Ecology and Nativism. If you are “transplanted” to a different soil (metaphor for the immigrant’s experience) and fail to thrive, whose fault is it? That of the soil or is it your own?
I finished off my day by attending the Keynote Address by Ilan Stavans on the problem of Monolingualism. Two issues he brought up stayed with me for several days. So much so that I was speaking with strangers about it on the plane ride home. The first is the perfectionism that many of us bring to our attempts to study language. This often stops people (myself included) from learning one language let alone many because I want to be fluent instead of functional. It is a way to ensure that we stay monolingual. The second was his observation that being multilingual isn’t simply about knowing how to speak and write in another language. It is about being able to interact with another culture, often radically different from your own, but still relatable to your experience. I though of this when I took a cab ride to the airport and had an amazing conversation with the driver, a recent immigrant from Ethiopia who wants the same things for his family that I want for mine. Thank you Ilan Stavans for staying with me all the way from BWI to MDW and shaping my conversations with strangers. And bravo for being able to speak to us for so long without notes or slides. Something I aspire to.
Saturday I began my day with a panel on F.O. Matthiessen. Who knew that people still read and/or talked about him? I remembered his text American Renaissance from my undergraduate days, but just assumed that in our Critical Theory heavy environment that Matthiessen’s work would be passe. What I took away from this talk was a greater appreciation for the New Critics and what they were trying to achieve. In the contemporary narrative, Cleanth Brooks and his colleagues in the New Critical approach to teaching literature are often viewed as Ivy-league elitists when the reality is that Brooks taught at LSU Baton Rouge, hardly a bastion of elitism, and was trying to democratize the reading of fiction, making it easier for non-specialist readers to encounter. Whether they achieved their intent or not and if they had the best approach to that goal are both open to dispute. But democratizing literature still seems a worthy goal. I also found myself wondering as I left that session when did we as literary scholars come to hate or distrust the thing we teach? And if we don’t love the literature we teach, why should our students?
The capstone of my day on Saturday was the Area Special Event which my fellow Director Lisa Perdigao made possible. Brian Norman came to speak to members of the American/Anglophone and Cultural Studies/Media Studies Areas on his new project examining “posthumous autobiographies.” These are works that purport to narrate the authentic life of key figures in the Civil Rights Era that are written/edited by another author after their death. Malcolm X’s autobiography was one of the key examples given. There is some question over how much control Alex Haley had over the text and if he was simply an editor or perhaps an author of the text, subtly shaping the way we see Malcolm X and his legacy. These questions are especially poignant as the Civil Rights movement gradually moves out of living memory with participants gradually passing away. Soon all we will have to know these figures and their historical moment are the texts and monuments left behind.
Fittingly, my conference experience ended with a panel on African-American literary traditions in Baltimore, chaired by Lena Ampadu, a scholar whose essay on Paul Dunbar’s poetry was crucial in the fifth chapter of my book. I was surprised to learn in this session as well as in the one on Saturday on Literary Maryland how crucial a role William Watkins played in the life of so many African-American authors and yet how little we know about him. The world of African-American activist fiction was much more interconnected than I thought it was. There is a clear intellectual history that develops from these personal connections that really needs a book to outline if. If that book already exists, let me know. It is an area that I only have limited knowledge in, mostly related to Frederick Douglass and Francis E.W. Harper.
After that session, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old friend from UIC grad school days and meeting her husband and son (NEMLA is a family friendly conference). Then it was off to BWI and back to Chicago to prepare for next year’s conference in Pittsburg.
If you have a session that you would like to propose for NEMLA 2018, you can find a link to propose that session here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html. Sessions should be on a topic that you feel might be of interest to a wide range of scholars. Try not to be too specific in your abstract or too broad. A few topics that I would like to see represented in Pittsburg include: Women at Work, Class Issues in US fiction, Representations of Disability, Immigrant Narratives in US fiction, Bilingual Authors and Texts in US literature, and Native American Fiction in the US. Other topics, of course, are welcome. If you’re not sure how or if your abstract will work, email me directly and we can discuss it. The deadline for session proposals is APRIL 29. Once the sessions have been vetted, a CFP will go out for papers and presentations. Usually this happens in mid to late May.
Thank you to all who attended NEMLA. Our members are what make this organization great. Please join us Pittsburg. Our new president Maria DiFrancesco has an amazing conference planned.
Until Next Time….
Greetings from Chicago!
Today looks and feels a lot more like you would expect of March in the upper Midwest. Lake effect snow is spreading out over the city leaving some neighborhoods buried while others see nothing but flurries. I left the apartment this morning in a white out and arrived to a very snowbound and icy UIC campus. Treacherous walking between buildings. I guess it’s true what they say about the weather. If you don’t like it, just wait a minute. Hopefully the weather is better wherever you are. And if not, that you’re inside watching the storm with a warm beverage.
The NEMLA 2017 Conference is just around the corner. We’ll be meeting this year in Baltimore, MD from March 23-26. Here is the main page for this year’s conference with links to the full program: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention.html. I look forward to meeting some of you there. This year NEMLA is setting tables aside for networking with other scholars in between sessions during the day, at the Saturday evening reception, and also at the closing brunch on Sunday. I plan to be at the table devoted to the area I represent (Anglophone/American) meeting conference attendees and presenters. Thanks to Claire Sommers, our NEMLA promotions fellow, for arranging this new initiative. I’d love the opportunity to hear more about the research and teaching conducting by our members and your suggestions for the Pittsburg convention in 2018. So please stop by!
Speaking of Pittsburg, if you are already thinking ahead to next year’s convention and have a session you’d like to propose, here is a link to the session proposal page for the 2018 conference. http://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html. As a reminder, there are six types of sessions: Seminar, Panel, Roundtable, Creative Session, Workshop, and Poster Session. Descriptions for each type of session can be found here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html.
I’ve had questions from potential session proposers about the difference between a Panel and a Roundtable. Panels are good if you have a piece of writing that is not quite ready for publication review and is still in need of conceptual revisions. Roundtables are good if you have concepts you want to discuss with an audience and are not anticipating publishing the records of that discussion. If your paper is generally ready for publication but still needs some feedback, you might consider a Seminar rather than a Panel. Seminars involve circulating papers ahead of time among session presenters and generally provide greater depth of commentary.
I don’t have a lot to say this month. My workload has been pretty heavy as we pass the midterm mark on campus. There is plenty of grading to do in my First Year Writing courses as well as my Survey of American Literature. This has made any sustained thought pretty difficult. I seem to keep swimming from task to task, much like my students. I couldn’t help but think of this when I read Department of Education Secretary Betsey DeVos’s comments on faculty telling students what to say and what to think. That made me laugh. (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/24/education-secretary-criticizes-professors-telling-students-what-think) If I could tell my students what’s on my mind right now, it would be that I need a long vacation and a lifetime ban on emails and committee meetings. I’ve already spent about two hours today answering emails, mostly from students who missed class today due to the weather. Not much propagandizing going on here. Just good old logistics. I’ll have to work on building up my elitist, liberal, professor agenda. : )
Speaking of agendas, I’ve decided to tweet my work week for the rest of the semester so the world can see what an NTT professor of English such as myself does with his time on the job. You can follow my posts on Twitter at #facultylife. Feel free to post your own updates on the work you do at that hashtag. Let the world know that what we do is real work, most of it supremely unglamorous.
In my next post, I’ll be sharing some highlights from this year’s NEMLA convention in Baltimore.
Until next time…
My current events blog died out years ago, but I still have a few meaningful (or at least I think them meaningful) things to say on matters happening around us today. Below is an article originally written as an Op-Ed but rejected by the local papers because I am not an “expert” in the field of politics. I’ve decided to publish it here.
The Death of Nuance–
All government happens in the center. Political discourse at the periphery (far left and far right) is useful primarily as a way to recalibrate the system and make sure the needs of everyone get met. When I still lived in Vermont, I voted for Bernie Sanders for that reason. I knew that he would fight passionately for his beliefs on the far left of the political spectrum and keep the professional politicians in Washington D.C. honest. Those professional politicians, however, were necessary to insure that the entire federal apparatus didn’t come crashing down or grind to a screeching halt.
Whatever your thoughts on President Trump, it is clear that he came to power through an uneasy coalition of political movements including many organizations on the far right. Some of these represent the worst tendencies in American culture and see the slogan “Make America Great Again” as an opportunity to roll back the Civil Rights gains of non-white and non-Christian inhabitants of the United States. Mainstream Republicans have chosen to look the other way so that they can enjoy a majority in all three branches of the Federal government. I also believe that they are afraid of Donald Trump and the Troll Army he has at his disposal via Twitter.
The fruits of this coalition so far have been chaos and a rapid decline in status for the United States as a world power. One example is the poorly executed and poorly conceived Executive Order banning entry to citizens of seven nations deemed a threat to the United States. Normal governance would have started with the President consulting with Republican leadership in the Senate and the House and giving them a framework to craft legislation amending existing immigration law. He then would have held a press conference to explain that framework and could have announced an executive order at that conference slowing down entry of persons from a list of nations that pose a clear threat to the United States. Responsible vetting rather than extreme vetting.
Trump, of course, chose not to do this. Instead he crafted his order and sent it out as swiftly as possible, giving little guidance to those charged with enforcing it. What happened next was inevitable. A blunt order led to a blunt response. Now all immigration reform is racist and xenophobic and all attempts to protest it are unpatriotic. How, I ask, is this useful to the United States? Not only does it not make the nation safer but it increases the partisan divide present throughout the 2016 election and ensures that true governance is impossible. It also confuses and terrifies our allies who are fast backing away from the United States and ensuring that in the not too distant future we will be a pariah nation.
Domestic and Foreign Policy is not and cannot be treated like Reality Television. It is desperately boring for a reason. Nuance is boring. Such nuance is nonetheless necessary to ensure the proper functioning of government at the local, state, and federal level. Without it, you have chaos, fear, anger, and social collapse. Let’s keep the drama out of the White House and leave it with Gordon Ramsey in Hell’s Kitchen. Then the government can get down to the task of crafting policies that will help all of the people in the United States.
John Casey, Chicago, IL
Greetings from Chicago!
If your weather is anything like ours, the ups and downs in temperature are hard to keep track of. Just a few days ago, I was wearing my heavy winter coat with a single digit wind chill freezing me on my walk to the train station. Today the sun is out and the projected high is near 50 degrees fahrenheit. I guess it’s true what they say. If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. Of course, temperature swings aside, there is no snow or ice on the ground here in Chicago. That is worth the hassle of temperature swings. At least in my opinion.
The NEMLA 2017 Conference in Baltimore, MD is just a little over a month away. This year’s conference has a great lineup of speakers and events. In the Anglophone/American Section, there are a broad range of research and teaching interests represented. Everything from methods of teaching early American literature in a way that resonates with 21st century students to research on the eco-gothic and urban pastoralism. You can see an online version of the convention schedule here.
The Anglophone/American area also has a great special event speaker this year. I’ve teamed up the the Cultural Studies and Media Studies chair Lisa Perdigao to invite Brian Norman to speak on the topic of the “posthumous autobiography.” You can read more about Brian Norman and his research here.
I hope to see some of my blog’s readers in Baltimore. Just look for the mustache and bowtie. My signature look. ; )
After the conference wraps up in late March, I’ll be sending out a call for sessions for next year’s conference in Pittsburg (the last at which I’ll be serving as area director). If you have an idea for a roundtable or session, start working on it now. I’d love to see you there. Topics of particular interest for the Pittsburg conference include images of Labor in U.S.fiction (past and present) as well as panels that address immigrants and immigration in U.S. fiction, particularly Latinos. Disability Studies panels are also welcome as this is a subject of perennial interest at our conventions. Submissions on Disability Studies to my area should address in some way the literary texts that either subvert or reaffirm our current understandings of the disabled and/or of “ability.”
Now for the part of my monthly blog where I give you, my readers, some insights into my current work. This month’s post (intended for January but woefully behind schedule) will focus on teaching, specifically my approach to teaching an intermediate level American Literature survey.
First of all, I’d like to start with some terminology. I’m not always good at following my own rule, but over the years I’ve started to become more rigorous in my distinction between the meaning of the United States and that of “America.” As I told my students during week one of this semester, the United States is a political and geographical reality. It is a place on a map that you can visit. America, in contrast, is an idea. The only way that America has a physical reality in the world is through the actions of those who live in the United States and continually debate with each other the meaning of that idea.
To highlight that distinction, I subdivided my survey course into three sections. The first I titled “America Lost/America Found.” In this section of the course, we examined the competing views of the land espoused by the First Nations (i.e. Native American tribal cultures) and those of the “discoverers” of “America” (i.e. the English and Spanish explorers and settlers). For one group of writers, the vision of the world they lived in was superseded while the other created “America” to fit the new continent within their pre-existing views of the world.
The second section of the course is called “A PostColonial Nation.” This section of the course contains many of the same authors found in an American Literature survey, but they are re-contextualized within the framework of postcolonial theory. The United States, after all, was a Colony of Great Britain that used many of the same reasons for independence that nations would use much later to justify separation from the “mother country.” During the past week, my class has read Thomas Paine’s defense of the rebellion in the English Colonies (Common Sense and The Crisis). One of my students made the astute observation that not only were the fledgling colonies growing to young adulthood (as Paine imagined them) but also realizing that they lived in a household with abusive parents and needed to move out. Now that we have made it past the part where the English colonies are moving out of the home space created by the mother country, our next series of readings will look at the United States trying to determine its own identity in terms of culture. What remains from the British tradition in the new world as authors and readers fight over the idea of “America” and what new ideas emerge?
The third and final section of the course addresses a concern that came up during the Presidential election last year that the cities of the United States are increasingly divorced from the world of a place called “the country.” This problem goes back to the founding of the nation in the contrasting political philosophies of men like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. For the purposes of this class, we’ll examine this urban/rural divide as a stable metaphor in U.S. culture and see how that metaphor plays out in two key novels from the late nineteenth century, Sister Carrie and O Pioneers! In the first of these narratives, we see the fears of those outside the city at the corrupting power of urban space, particularly for women. The second addresses the issue of immigration and the rural landscape. Who are the people who live in the country? What do they do for living? What makes them different from those who choose to live in the city?
It’s been a while since I’ve had the privilege to teach an American Literature course so I’m putting my full energy into teaching it this semester. My hope is to cement in my student’s minds the reality that terms do matter. They frame the starting points of our thought. Consequently, if we mistake “America” for the “United States,” we leave out the other countries that make up North and South America as well as Central America and the Caribbean. We also assume that we know what “America” means. If 2016 has taught us nothing else, it should be that these foundational terms cannot be taken for granted. A healthy debate is always needed about the idea/ideal of “America” and how it relates to the United States. I want to create a place where that debate can take place in a respectful and useful manner.
My hope for this post is to suggest to other scholars and teachers (wherever or whatever you teach) that syllabi matter. I teach First Year Writing more frequently than literature and our program has a strong genre-based focused that emphasizes the relationship between writer, form, reader, context, and desired outcome. Faculty need to ask themselves what they hope to achieve from their course and make this part of the creation of their course syllabi. Too often it is a throw away genre that is constructed primarily to meet administrative needs and is thereby trapped in traditions that are comfortable but not useful for students or the advancement of pedagogy in a particular field. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone here and practice in the classroom some of the concepts I talk about in conferences like NEMLA as well as in my research.
Well, that’s all for this month’s post.
Until next time….
Greetings from Chicago!
Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside. From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus. Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families. I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend. After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses. Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.
For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses. Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public. Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand. These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me. First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing. Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.
Let’s start with the issue of communication. Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars. One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading. Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology. They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German). When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated. However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex. In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature. Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work. Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”
Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing. I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre. But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field. I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight. Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me. Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience. It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups. Lecturing is not just a technique. It is a tone of voice. To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order. Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking. Everyone is an expert in something. Share that expertise.
Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline. In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read. It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience. Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression. My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications. I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature. We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.” I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?). In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze. Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination. Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.
None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship. For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom. Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today. As are book clubs. Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public. I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works. Obviously, however, this is not enough. What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning. Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree. Improve what is there and expand it. We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts. Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?
I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post. But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December. I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years. I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends. I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.
Until next time…
Greetings from Chicago!
The leaves are starting to change color on campus and there is a chill in the air. Fall is slowly coming here to the windy city. We’re now more than half way through the semester at UIC and it shows on the faces of students and faculty. Everyone is ready for a break. If nothing else, it will get us away from the constant noise of construction that follows us from one space on campus to another. In the meantime, we press on.
My last blog post focused on my research. This one will be a bit of a grab bag. One of the major downsides to being a Full-Time Nontenured Faculty member is the lack of time for research. This semester I’m teaching four First Year Composition classes and its hard to find time in between course prep, grading, and meeting with students to read the sources I’ve collected from the library for my second book project. Right now, I’m slogging my way through an economic history of farming written by Willard W. Cochrane. His text is giving me a useful overview of the shift in farming practices over the course of US history. Careful notes are helping me remember where I left off each time I set the book down to counsel a student on the best way to format a literature review. I recognize, of course, that having any time at all to research is an oddity for most NTT Faculty, especially those who teach part-time. My situation as a Lecturer is far from ideal, but it is certainly an improvement to the days when I was paid by the course and had to travel in between campuses.
As with most things in life, the academic profession is a series of pluses and minuses. The minuses for me are the stagnant pay and lack of research opportunities. The pluses are the security of a yearly contract, benefits, course schedule, and now an increasing recognition of my past research on campus. It might not seem like much to outsiders, but my being assigned to teach a section of the Sophomore level American Literature survey (ENGL 243) is a major advancement not just for me but a sign of how work conditions are improving for NTT faculty in our department. I’ve also been invited to a faculty author’s reception hosted by the UIC Chancellor’s office to celebrate the publication of my first book (New Men) last year. This also is a major advancement in NTT conditions on campus since I was not recognized for a long time as a faculty member. Finally, there’s the fact that I am writing this blog as part of my duties as Director of American Literature for NEMLA, a position that has traditionally been held by TT faculty. So life is not all gloom and doom for those off the tenure track. Progress, I often have to remind myself, is incremental and not necessarily linear. I continue to advocate for NTT faculty and for nontraditional students on campus, planting seeds for trees I will probably never see fully grown.
Part of what has helped me become more integrated into my campus is hutzpah. If there’s something I’m interested in, I find a way to get involved. This was the case with a recent event discussing the construction plans for a new classroom building on the UIC campus. I saw the faculty massmail advertising the event and showed up, the only English faculty member and probably the only NTT faculty member in the room. The usual types were well-represented, of course, various Vice-Chancellors and diverse Deans of subject areas few can adequately comprehend. There were also a few TT faculty from Math and Chemistry as well as Engineering and Social Sciences. During this session, the designers explained the overall goal of their plan. They want to design a classroom that encourages “student-centered” learning. Normally phrases like that give me the creeps. They have this “edu-speak” ring to them that is common amongst folks who talk a lot about education but have never stepped into a classroom. This presentation, however, held my attention because it focused on how the physical design of a classroom might change (in a positive way) how faculty teach.
Physical design of classroom space at UIC is a frequent topic of conversation among our faculty. Usually in the form of complaints about how a classroom’s designs prohibit us from doing the type of teaching we would like to do. For years I’ve wanted to experiment with multi-modal composition in my writing classrooms but have been stymied by the lack of a good computer and projector to exhibit projects, poor wi-fi reliability, and classrooms that are too small for students to move around in comfortably to work. Our buildings at UIC were designed for an era when the lecture was king. In spite of our best efforts to increase the discussion/activity functions in teaching, the rooms often lead us back to the lecture because it’s easier to do so. So what would a class that makes lecturing hard if not impossible look like? I saw a few examples of this in the presenter’s mock up drawings.
The example most relevant to the size of the courses I teach (18-25 students) was a room that could hold a maximum of 35 students. That room had a white board in the front, a fixed computer podium, projector and interactive screen (i.e. a screen you can write on with dry erase markers). Students sat at square tables made from joining together two rectangular ones. Four students to a table. These were arranged throughout the room. On the side walls were touch screen televisions that could be used by students for break out sessions. Each television was connected to the main projector in the room as well as to the internet.
The whiteboard, podium, and projector set up still make it possible for a faculty member to lecture, but it is harder for students to see the material. They need to move around because they don’t sit in fixed rows oriented towards the front board. The room is also longer than it is wide, making it difficult to project your voice from front to back. Consequently, this room discourages faculty from talking to the class as a whole and encourages them to move away from the podium to walk among their students and check in with individual groups. This is something that I already try to do in my composition classes. The square footprint of our classrooms, however, make it harder for me to do this. The room fits exactly 24 students (according to fire code) and that is the number I have. Add backpacks and winter coats and it soon becomes impossible for anyone to move about in the room. A 35 person room with 24 students in it would be like heaven. Adding technology to the room and more natural light would simply be a bonus. I can imagine providing students in a classroom such as this with a task to complete in a set period of time. I would then check in with each group as they work and show the entire class particularly unique methods to addressing the task.
Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to the design proposals I saw. One is the assumption that all our students have laptops or tablets that function like laptops. The digital divide is real on our campus and is only slowly being addressed. You can’t complete homework assignments on a smartphone even though many students try to do this. Another is maintenance. Lincoln Hall is currently one of the most advanced classroom buildings on our campus and its technology is fast becoming outdated and very beat up through heavy use. I’m constantly having to reconnect or jiggle loose cables and find adaptors to connect new devices that no longer have VGA or standard sized HDMI ports. Finally, design alone cannot drive pedagogy. It can force us to think more carefully about how we teach, but only faculty meeting with other faculty can hash out what the role of the lecture should be in each course and discipline and how it should relate to more active learning techniques.
All of this brings me to my conclusion for this post, which is a question. What does your ideal classroom look like? Mine would be large enough to have zones for distinct modes of learning. One zone would have a circle of desk/chair combos near a white board for lecture/discussion. Another zone would have tables and chairs for writing and research. And yet another would have comfortable chairs for students to sit and read, thinking through their understanding of a concept. Students could move freely through this space depending on what task they needed to accomplish. My syllabus would reflect this. Each day would emphasize a certain mode of learning and blend them together as needed. At least one wall would provide natural light that could be filtered or blocked to allow showing films and videos. There would also be ample storage for student backpacks and coats so that they don’t have to be placed on the floor.
Multiple focal points in a room. Multiple modes of learning in a syllabus. These are my goals. We’ll see if the new classroom building UIC constructs makes this possible. In the meantime, we make do with the tools at hand.
Until next time….
Greetings from Chicago!
Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance. In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus. One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall). Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window. A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal. It’s very hard to focus in my office. I’ll be glad when they’re done.
Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing. I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out. All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment. This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive. Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing cost in housing, healthcare, and services. Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring. And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment. Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior. But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin. I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”
In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests. For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for? You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans. I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves. My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way. It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war. Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming. Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war. In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain. Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen. These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.
Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming. One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus. Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict. In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period. Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.
All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil. Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture. As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape. Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone. Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity. Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States. One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.
Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book. As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture. Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.” Farming and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century. The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.” Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.
But what takes root and how? What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not? This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle. When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration. Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants. Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.
I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment. Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship. (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.) William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason. In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.” He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).
The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US. I will share what I learn with you on this blog. I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems. If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.
Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.
Until Next Time….