Posts Tagged American literature

Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #2)

Here on the UIC campus it’s now week two and I’m already starting to fall behind. I’m sure that many of you reading this post can relate. Navigating my course schedule for the new semester, attending committee meetings, working on various writing projects, the to do list goes on. With a few spare moments in the schedule, I wanted to continue my conversation with you (the NEMLA membership) on issues relating to the research and teaching of American Literature. This month I’d like to consider what connection (if any) our research has on what takes place inside the classroom.

To start this discussion, I’ll share a bit of my own experience. My position at UIC is classified as teaching intensive.  As a full time non-tenure eligible “Lecturer,” I teach a 3-3 course load on a one year contract. Of course, this year’s unexpectedly large enrollment of first year students means that most Lecturers in my department are actually teaching 4 courses with the additional class considered an “over-comp” (i.e. pay in addition to faculty base salary).

Evaluation of Lecturers is based solely on teaching and teaching related activities.  What this means in practice is that student evaluations, syllabi, and faculty observations (by both TT and NTT colleagues) serve as the basis for hiring, retention, and promotion to Senior Lecturer.  Research (unless it relates directly to teaching) is not considered relevant in the assessment of UIC’s fairly sizable teaching intensive faculty pool.

Course assignments for Lecturers in the UIC English Department are determined primarily by the needs of its First Year Writing Program.  Nearly all of our department’s Lecturers can expect to each at least one first year writing course in a semester. On occasion, as enrollment allows, NTT faculty in the department might also be assigned to teach General Education or introductory level courses for the English Major.  Some of our NTT faculty in Creative Writing also teach upper level writing workshops.

You might very well ask yourself at this point why I’m focusing on what might properly be considered “human resources” issues.  These issues, however, are at the heart of the question of how research relates to teaching in my department. For Tenure Track faculty, research is the main focus of their job description with teaching assumed to follow in a holistic way from that research.  NTT Lecturers, hired solely on the basis of their teaching ability, face a different situation with research considered an outside interest that runs parallel to their duties for the university.  In essence, for a Lecturer at UIC, there is not (in most cases) a connection between their research and teaching, nor does the university expect such a connection to exist.

That said, many of my NTT colleagues persist in conducting research in a wide variety of fields and find ways to “smuggle” their interests into first year writing and general education literature courses. This might include course readings that either analyze an area of research interest for faculty or represent a concept crucial to their studies as scholars.  Our first year writing program also encourages faculty to have topics for their courses, and a casual glance at those topics will quickly give an outsider a sense of what the research interests are of Lecturers in the UIC English Department.

So far so good, but what about my research interests?  If you’ve taken a chance to read through my CV and skim through some of the writing samples on my website, you can see that my central research interest is in veterans of the United States Civil War and the cultural legacy associated with them in the late nineteenth-century.  How exactly that might be turned into a first year writing course still escapes me, so I haven’t tried to create one with that as its course topic (yet).  Nor have I had a chance to shape a lower level literature course to fit that topic since I haven’t (Oprah moment here) taught a literature course since 2011 (Introduction to American Literature and Culture).

The main venue through which my research has managed to cross over into my teaching has been in my methodology, which relies upon archival research. Each semester that I’ve taught the research paper course at UIC (ENGL 161), this method has managed to find its way into my syllabus and influences the topics that my students select.  It also influenced the way I taught many of the units in my Introduction to Critical Theory and Literary Criticism course (ENGL 240), especially the one on Digital Humanities.  Another way that my research has found its way into my teaching is the emphasis that I put on place and community in all my courses. Both of these themes were central to what it meant to be a veteran in the late nineteenth-century United States. Feeling out of place or in the wrong community is a feeling that shows up in many of the narratives examined in my book New Men.  

Never in my life have I been good at conclusions. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I love to talk and talk and talk and talk.  Especially if the topic is one in which I have an interest. Yet even a blog post needs an ending and this is where I’d like to leave you all this month.  Teaching has become for me a place to test ideas and find new interests that might not develop if I were sitting at home with a stack of books working alone on my next article or book chapter. The constraints of my working conditions also serve a purpose as they teach me that good ideas need skilled pitchmen and women to make their way out into the world. Rhetoric, I have swiftly learned, is not just a departmental staffing need but the mother discipline, especially in these times of budget cuts for the humanities.

In my next blog post, I’d like to share some of your experiences teaching and researching on American Literature.  How do you understand the relationship between teaching and research?  What types of classes do you tend to teach and how do you find ways to emphasize your interest/understanding of American Literature in those classes?  You can send your thoughts on this topic to me directly via email (jcasey3@uic.edu) with the subject line NEMLA Blog Post #3.  I’ll share selections of those emails with you all in my next post.

Until next time…

John Casey

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Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #1)

Welcome to the first of what will be a series of short essays on the present and future(s) of American Literature that I’ll be writing during the last week of each month during my tenure as Director of Anglophone/American Literature for the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA). These essays are meant to give members of NEMLA a better sense of my scholarly background and outline the direction I hope to take the Anglophone/American literature division while serving as director. They are also an opportunity for members of this NEMLA division to share their own thoughts on American literature either through submitting comments, quotations for me to insert into the writing, or through guest posts.

In this first essay, I’d like to focus mostly on introducing myself to the members of the NEMLA Anglophone/American Literature division. My interest in American Literature developed out of a fascination with United States history. As a child I spent most of my summers with my grandparents and my grandfather and uncle Paul (who lived with him) had a sizable collection of books. Among them were illustrated volumes on the history of the U.S. Civil War and stories written by explorers of the western states. (The journals of Lewis and Clark are still among my favorite things to read.) I pored over those narratives and spent hours staring at the pictures in each book. Both spurred my imagination about what life must have been like for people living in the United States during the nineteenth century.

Coming from this background, it would have been natural for me to pursue a degree in history, but the social and cultural history that now dominates that discipline today was not yet common on the college campuses to which I applied. History programs in those schools seemed dominated more with facts and figures than the stories of ordinary people and the ways in which they understood their world (often at odds with the facts). As luck would have it, the English department at both the graduate and undergraduate schools I attended encouraged students to explore narrative as an extension of the self and the world that writers inhabit. I found a writer that interested me in the first semester of my graduate studies, John William De Forest, and the rest is part of my own history. That author and the method of literary study I had pursued since early on as a student would lead me to write a book that exemplifies my historically influenced approach to the study of literature, New Men.

A fascination with the context of literary production remains a constant in my scholarly life, but the topics I research are diverse. There are many veterans in my family and my grandfather’s obsession with military history shaped my reading habits from an early age. This led me first to essays and a book on veterans in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century United States. Growing up in Vermont also made me very much attuned to the environment and I’m currently conducting research for a new book on farming practices in the nineteenth-century United States and how those practices often clashed with the mythology of farming that many small farmer’s had imbibed from an early age. I suppose if there is any link between this new avenue of inquiry and the prior one, it is in the personal connection that stirred the desire to research the topic. There are also meaningful links here between the mythology of war and the warrior and that of the farmer. Few images seem quite as “American” as the citizen-soldier and the family farmer.

The courses I teach also serve as grounds for me to explore other areas of interest. These have included at various times: detective fiction, Westerns, Chicago literature, historic preservation, ecology, urban planning, and so on…. None of these interests have developed into a book (yet), but I have sent nearly a generation of students out the doors of my classrooms more attuned to these issues.  I am especially proud to have introduced to hundreds of undergraduates the uncanny significance of space when it is re-crafted for human needs(often referred to as human geography). Few of my students ever look at their environment in quite the same way again after having attended my class. One even wrote me a few semesters ago with a story about a poorly designed pedestrian mall in their hometown.

Some might argue that my eclectic research interests explain why I remain a non-tenure eligible faculty member (i.e. a Lecturer rather than an Associate Professor). Perhaps that’s true, but the glory of humanities research is not in the categorization. Instead it is in its ability to break and reshape categories. I guess that explains my recent fascination with Digital Humanities, which probably won’t save the humanities as a whole but certainly will force us to rethink the dominant paradigms shaping our various fields of study. Who knows, maybe someday what I’m writing now will be considered an essay and not simply a “blog post” (insert disdainful noises here) by the academic establishment.

Anyway, this is who I am dear NEMLA members. Passionate about what I do and quirky as hell.  It’s a pleasure to meet you all virtually and I look forward to seeing many of you in person in Hartford, Connecticut.

Until next time…

John Casey

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Event of Possible Interest (Newberry Seminar in American Literature)

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