Posts Tagged American literature

My Spring 2018 Courses (Literature)

Town and Country–Literature About Urban and Rural Life In the United States

ENGL 109

Spring 2018

CRN # (24546 / 22523)

MWF 2:00-2:50 pm


Photo by John Casey (2018)

From the urban campus of UIC, it is hard to miss the reality of Chicago, the nation’s third largest city. It is easy to forget, however, that Illinois and most of the midwest are the agricultural heart of the nation. In this class, we will read novels, short stories, and poems written by authors examining urban and rural life. Some of these works will include Sister Carrie, Maud Martha, The Spoon River Anthology, O Pioneers, Winesburg, Ohio, Electric Arches, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. We will consider in this class how metaphors used for the country differ from those used to describe the city in US fiction as well as examining ways in which these different types of narratives overlap.


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NeMLA CFP (2019) Teaching American Literature as Post-Colonial Literature (Proposals Due 9/30)

Efforts have been underway for nearly a generation to change the way that scholars, students, and the general public view “American Literature.” To a large extent, these efforts have been additive in nature. Works of literature that had previously been left out or “lost” from the literary record were added. New theoretical frameworks that helped legitimize these recovered works of fiction were also introduced. Although this process of recovery helped reframe classic works of American fiction and forced the literary history of US fiction to evolve, it did not fundamentally change the vision of American Literature as an exceptional body of work tied to an exceptional nation. What would it mean to remove the structural framework of US exceptionalism from the syllabus of American Literature courses? How might post-colonial theory help scholars teaching these courses (particularly US surveys) to accomplish this goal? How might a change in pedagogy drive a change in scholarship on the authors typically examined in these courses? What backlash might scholars attempting to make these changes face in a renewed nationalist climate and how could they potentially use that backlash to change public discourse on US fiction? These are a few of the possible questions that presentations in this session might consider. Research examining authors of the early Republic within a post-colonial framework are particularly welcome. Please note that round tables are informal presentations of between 5 and 10 minutes as these sessions are meant to generate discussion.


This round table will examine the role of US exceptionalism in creating course syllabi for American Literature surveys taught today. It will also consider how a post-colonial theoretical framework might change the way that scholars teach American Literature and how those pedagogical changes might drive changes in scholarship on the authors taught in these courses.

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #16)

Greetings from Chicago!

If your weather is anything like ours, the ups and downs in temperature are hard to keep track of.  Just a few days ago, I was wearing my heavy winter coat with a single digit wind chill freezing me on my walk to the train station.  Today the sun is out and the projected high is near 50 degrees fahrenheit.  I guess it’s true what they say.  If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.  Of course, temperature swings aside, there is no snow or ice on the ground here in Chicago.  That is worth the hassle of temperature swings.  At least in my opinion.

The NEMLA 2017 Conference in Baltimore, MD is just a little over a month away.  This year’s conference has a great lineup of speakers and events.  In the Anglophone/American Section, there are a broad range of research and teaching interests represented.  Everything from methods of teaching early American literature in a way that resonates with 21st century students to research on the eco-gothic and urban pastoralism.  You can see an online version of the convention schedule here.

The Anglophone/American area also has a great special event speaker this year.  I’ve teamed up the the Cultural Studies and Media Studies chair Lisa Perdigao to invite Brian Norman to speak on the topic of the “posthumous autobiography.”  You can read more about Brian Norman and his research here.

I hope to see some of my blog’s readers in Baltimore.  Just look for the mustache and bowtie.  My signature look.  ; )

After the conference wraps up in late March, I’ll be sending out a call for sessions for next year’s conference in Pittsburg (the last at which I’ll be serving as area director).  If you have an idea for a roundtable or session, start working on it now.  I’d love to see you there. Topics of particular interest for the Pittsburg conference include images of Labor in U.S.fiction (past and present) as well as panels that address immigrants and immigration in U.S. fiction, particularly Latinos.  Disability Studies panels are also welcome as this is a subject of perennial interest at our conventions.  Submissions on Disability Studies to my area should address in some way the literary texts that either subvert or reaffirm our current understandings of the disabled and/or of “ability.”

Now for the part of my monthly blog where I give you, my readers, some insights into my current work.  This month’s post (intended for January but woefully behind schedule) will focus on teaching, specifically my approach to teaching an intermediate level American Literature survey.

First of all, I’d like to start with some terminology.  I’m not always good at following my own rule, but over the years I’ve started to become more rigorous in my distinction between the meaning of the United States and that of “America.”  As I told my students during week one of this semester, the United States is a political and geographical reality.  It is a place on a map that you can visit.  America, in contrast, is an idea.  The only way that America has a physical reality in the world is through the actions of those who live in the United States and continually debate with each other the meaning of that idea.

To highlight that distinction, I subdivided my survey course into three sections.  The first I titled “America Lost/America Found.”  In this section of the course, we examined the competing views of the land espoused by the First Nations (i.e. Native American tribal cultures) and those of the “discoverers” of “America” (i.e. the English and Spanish explorers and settlers).  For one group of writers, the vision of the world they lived in was superseded while the other created “America” to fit the new continent within their pre-existing views of the world.

The second section of the course is called “A PostColonial Nation.”  This section of the course contains many of the same authors found in an American Literature survey, but they are re-contextualized within the framework of postcolonial theory.  The United States, after all, was a Colony of Great Britain that used many of the same reasons for independence that nations would use much later to justify separation from the “mother country.”  During the past week, my class has read Thomas Paine’s defense of the rebellion in the English Colonies (Common Sense and The Crisis).  One of my students made the astute observation that not only were the fledgling colonies growing to young adulthood (as Paine imagined them) but also realizing that they lived in a household with abusive parents and needed to move out.  Now that we have made it past the part where the English colonies are moving out of the home space created by the mother country, our next series of readings will look at the United States trying to determine its own identity in terms of culture.  What remains from the British tradition in the new world as authors and readers fight over the idea of “America” and what new ideas emerge?

The third and final section of the course addresses a concern that came up during the Presidential election last year that the cities of the United States are increasingly divorced from the world of a place called “the country.”  This problem goes back to the founding of the nation in the contrasting political philosophies of men like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  For the purposes of this class, we’ll examine this urban/rural divide as a stable metaphor in U.S. culture and see how that metaphor plays out in two key novels from the late nineteenth century, Sister Carrie and O Pioneers!  In the first of these narratives, we see the fears of those outside the city at the corrupting power of urban space, particularly for women.  The second addresses the issue of immigration and the rural landscape.  Who are the people who live in the country?  What do they do for living?  What makes them different from those who choose to live in the city?

It’s been a while since I’ve had the privilege to teach an American Literature course so I’m putting my full energy into teaching it this semester.  My hope is to cement in my student’s minds the reality that terms do matter.  They frame the starting points of our thought.  Consequently, if we mistake “America” for the “United States,” we leave out the other countries that make up North and South America as well as Central America and the Caribbean.  We also assume that we know what “America” means.  If 2016 has taught us nothing else, it should be that these foundational terms cannot be taken for granted.  A healthy debate is always needed about the idea/ideal of “America” and how it relates to the United States.  I want to create a place where that debate can take place in a respectful and useful manner.

My hope for this post is to suggest to other scholars and teachers (wherever or whatever you teach) that syllabi matter.  I teach First Year Writing more frequently than literature and our program has a strong genre-based focused that emphasizes the relationship between writer, form, reader, context, and desired outcome.  Faculty need to ask themselves what they hope to achieve from their course and make this part of the creation of their course syllabi.  Too often it is a throw away genre that is constructed primarily to meet administrative needs and is thereby trapped in traditions that are comfortable but not useful for students or the advancement of pedagogy in a particular field.  I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone here and practice in the classroom some of the concepts I talk about in conferences like NEMLA as well as in my research.

Well, that’s all for this month’s post.

Until next time….

John Casey

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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:

The deadline for submitting a session proposal is April 29.  To submit a proposal go to:

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

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….


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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 #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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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #4)

Greetings from Chicago!  It’s starting to look and feel like winter a lot more with each passing day.  Colorful hats and scarves are coming out of storage and adding to the beautiful colors of the fall foliage on campus.  Here’s a picture I took this weekend of the signs of fall slowly turning to winter at UIC.  Hopefully you’ve had a least a few sunny days wherever you are.


In my last blog post I began to discuss issues related to teaching with technology in the field of American Literature.  This month I’d like to move from blogs, a fairly well-established medium at this point, to the newer and more contested form of micro-blogging that is best exemplified by Twitter.

What can you do in 140 characters or less?  This was the question I set out to answer in August of 2011 when I signed up for Twitter.  Here is a summary of what I learned:

  • You need to choose the people you “follow” carefully
  • It’s easy to get into fruitless arguments with people you don’t know
  • Networking via Twitter is haphazard.

Let me start with the first of these observations.  The reason I say that it matters who you follow is that this decision dictates your Twitter “feed.”  When you “follow” someone on Twitter, you tell the service to send you everything that person posts.  This might include photos, things they have written, or materials they forward to you from other people (known in Twitter lingo as “retweets”).  If you plan to use your Twitter account primarily for academic purposes, it makes sense to follow faculty whose work you admire, programs that are producing materials you find useful to your own work, or institutions that contain primary sources you frequently use.  You can also add the accounts of colleagues in other fields and keep up with research happening in areas of study not directly related to your own.  When you choose the people you follow carefully, your Twitter feed ends up looking like a newsletter (updated each day) or an interactive RSS list.  If the headline grabs your attention, you can then click on it and learn more about new research, job changes, grant and positions available, etc.  Most complaints I’ve heard about Twitter feeds involve users who want their account to be simultaneously personal and professional.  You can try to do this, but (unlike on Facebook) I don’t think it will work.  Tweets from the National Archives and faculty on United States Civil War era culture don’t mesh well with the latest pronouncements from celebrity land.  Save the Kardashians for a personal Twitter feed or for scholars in contemporary pop culture.

Focusing on my next observation, writing in 140 characters or less is an exercise in precision.  You need to eliminate all unnecessary words as Twitter won’t let you send out a message that is longer than its software allows.  (This might change in the near future, but for the moment the limitation stands.  More on the shift in Twitter’s function later.)  I have used Twitter in my college composition classrooms as a way to teach summary to students.  It can also be a useful grammar teaching tool if you force people to Tweet grammatically correct statements with no text speak or emojis.  Of course, this haiku like brevity also leaves plenty of room for misunderstanding.  I learned this the hard way not long after I joined Twitter.  My assumption was that hardly anyone would read my tweets.  I am not famous after all, just a Lecturer in English at a midwest regional university.  Following this logic, I vented my frustration with the Modern Language Association (MLA) on Twitter.  Imagine my surprise when the Executive Director of the MLA (Rosemary Feal) responded to my tweet.  Not only did she respond, but she was hurt by the critique contained in my message.  After trying to explain myself via multiple haikus (a.k.a. tweets), I gave up and moved over to a new medium (a blog post) that seemed better suited to the complex nature of our disagreement.

My experience with the knee-jerk nature of disagreement on Twitter is not unusual.  What is unusual is the positive outcome to the interaction.  Many have begun to use the medium as a way to bully others into silence.  Although any tool can be used for a similar purpose, including the telephone, Twitter seems particularly vulnerable to this type of manipulation.  Twitter, as many analysts have claimed, is a tool for “amplification,” getting one’s message out to the broadest audience possible.  What gets amplified sometimes fills me with disgust.

Getting into a Twitter fight so early in my use of the medium has shaped my usage of it since.  Someone who has studied the medium much closer than I have has observed that there are typically three types of people on Twitter:  the lurkers, the reposters, and the networkers  I began as a lurker, simply reading the tweets of others.  From there I attempted to be a networker, only to be shot down for speaking up.  Since that moment, I have been mostly a reposter.  A quick glance at my Twitter feed will show that I don’t write much content on Twitter.  I repost the materials of others that I think might be useful or interesting to other people.  I also post links to my blog, which is where I do most of my talking.  Twitter (as I use it now) amplifies the works of others and also publicizes my own.

This leads me to my final point.  Just as I thought that blogs would help me to network with scholars I could never meet in person, I also thought that Twitter would help connect me to scholars whose work I admired from afar but would never meet at an academic conference.  That hope didn’t pan out.  As with blogs, I learned that face to face networks tend to have a greater impact that virtual ones.  It was only in a few instances where virtual networking proved to be relevant and lasting.  Mostly it’s like throwing darts in a dark room.  Twitter is a good supplement to old fashioned networking, but it is a supplement rather than a replacement.  Not great news, I’m afraid, for adjunct faculty.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to discuss the issue of how Twitter has changed since I joined in 2011.  Twitter remains a free service, but went public in 2013 and now trades on the New York Stock Exchange.  As with Facebook, the decision to become a publicly traded company has altered the nature of the medium.  Ads and “promoted tweets” now flood my feed and often drown out the ones that are more relevant to me.  A new “moments” feature has also been added to the mobile version that sends me the top news stories of the day in a feed format that looks a lot like Facebook.  There has even been discussion about changing the 140 character limit, allowing longer messages.  In a struggle to be profitable, Twitter is killing off what made the service unique in the first place.

Twitter has become less a newsletter and more of a billboard.  At the same time, the aggression directed at some of the most vocal communicators on Twitter has shut down meaningful discussion through the medium.  Legal attention to faculty tweets (particularly those of Steven Salaita) has also had a similar silencing effect.  What began for me as a virtual seminar, teaching me enormous amounts of information on what came to be known as Digital Humanities, is now just another news aggregator.

I hate to end on a down note, but I have to be honest about my experience with this particular tool.  Keep in mind, however, that this is just my experience of Twitter.  It’s still free.  Try it out.  Discover for yourself how or if it makes sense to communicate your scholarship in 140 characters or less.

Next month I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of using electronic texts in the classroom, a prelude to the topic I’ll be presenting in Hartford.  From there I think it makes sense for us to consider our vulnerability as scholars entering the market of educational technology.

Until next time…..

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #3)

Greetings from foggy and damp Chicago!  I hope the weather is at least a little nicer wherever you are.  This third blog post was meant to be a space for NEMLA members to share their thoughts on the relationship between teaching and research, a topic explored in my last blog post. However, upon checking my email inbox, I discovered that no one had sent in any responses.

Consequently, for this month I’m going to focus on two things.  First, reminding NEMLA members that you have until Midnight TODAY to submit your proposals for this year’s conference in Hartford thanks to a deadline extension.  Session descriptions can be found at  Second, focusing on the role of technology in the field of American Literature.

Since I am writing a blog post, perhaps the best way to start is with that medium.  Blogs aren’t really a new technology. They have been around since at least the 1990’s.  I remember using a primitive version of web journal during my undergraduate years that looked a lot like a blog and allowed users to communicate within the university’s computer network (intranet) in a manner similar to today’s chat rooms or discussion boards.  Yet it has only been in recent years that blogging has evolved from a niche mode of communication for the tech savvy to a form of expression that now overshadows most other genres of writing.  This growth in the number of bloggers is due in no small part to the creation of blog templates such as Blogger and WordPress that eliminate the need for writers to know coding languages.  Online writing tools used to require someone to create them before any writing could be done.  Now an aspiring blogger simply needs to pick a service provider, choose a template, and start writing.

I came to consistent blogging fairly late in my career.  After my introduction to this form of writing as an undergraduate, I didn’t write anything that might be considered a blog until 2011.  At the time, my decision was based mostly on frustration.  I felt that no one in my immediate circles of colleagues was interested in my area of research and I couldn’t afford to travel to the conferences most relevant to my field.  Blogging allowed me to connect with other scholars that I might otherwise never meet face to face and share my research with the world.  Of course, it also gave me space to play as I created both a professional blog (on which this post was written) and a current events blog that was more for fun.  On that second site I wrote about topics in the news that I had strong opinions about (most local in nature).  It was like my own personal editorial page.

Not long after creating these two blogs, I discovered that one of the problems of online writing is figuring out how to develop a reading audience.  Even a print author grows discouraged if no one seems to be reading their works.  The same is true of a blogger.  If one is writing for themselves or for close acquaintances that they see everyday, the task of writing soon becomes a burden and the blog dies.  My current events blog suffered just such a death.  Another species of problem that can arise is gaining the wrong type of readership.  Much has been written on internet “trolls” who hijack discussions on websites and bully writers of blog posts into silence.  A different problem is when one gains readers but not on the subject originally intended.  My professional blog was intended as a space for me to share my research on American Literature, but soon developed into a venue for debating issues related to academic labor.

Initially I fought notoriety as an advocate for adjuncts as it is not something I’ve done research on, unless you count experience as a form of research.  Then I embraced it for the readership.  Finally, I discovered that after my initial round of posts, I had nothing else to say.  Having spoken my peace, I returned to my original topics of interests and my readership underwent a precipitous decline. Most of the traffic on my blog site today ( is still connected to my posts on adjunct labor and not my writings on American Literature.

What I’ve learned through my experience with blogging is that you need to create face to face networks before you can successfully establish an online readership.  You also need to have a clear sense of your blog’s purpose and audience. The blog site you are reading this post on has developed into more of a website (content to read) rather than a gateway for virtual conversation.  Part of me wants to accept that while part of me continues to seek audience interaction.  I think the design of my site reflects this tug of war.

I’ve rambled so long this month about blogs that I don’t have much time to talk about other technologies used in the teaching and research of American Literature.  Next week I’ll discuss another tool I’ve come to both love and hate–Twitter. This will lead me to a prelude of the issues I plan to discuss in my round table session in Hartford.

Until next time….

John Casey

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REMINDER: NeMLA 2016 (Hartford)-Call for Papers available online! (Abstracts Due Sept. 30)

2016 Call for Papers

Northeast Modern Language Association

47th Annual Convention

Hartford, Connecticut

March 17-20, 2016

Hosted by the University of Connecticut

Abstract Deadline: September 30, 2015

In spring 2016, the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) will meet in Hartford, Connecticut, for its 47th Annual Convention. Every year, this event affords NeMLA’s principal opportunity to carry on a tradition of lively research and pedagogical exchange in language and literature. The convention will include a full array of sessions, workshops, literary readings, film screenings, and guest speakers.

Hartford features some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in New England: the adjacent and interconnected Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses; the artistic and cultural collections at the Wadsworth Atheneum; classic and contemporary performances at the Hartford Stage, Theater Works, and the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts; archives and research opportunities at the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut State Library and State Archives; unique and offbeat museums for kids and families such as the Connecticut Science Center and the CRRA Trash Museum; and much more. Both Adriaen’s Landing (the newly completed area around the convention center) and the historic downtown feature a variety of restaurants, shops, and parks. 

Please join us for this convention, which will feature approximately 400 sessions, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.

Full information regarding the 2016 Call for Papers may be found on our website:


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