Posts Tagged NEMLA 2017
Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #18)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in Higher Ed, NEMLA, Updates on March 27, 2017
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….
Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #17)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in Higher Ed, NEMLA, Updates on March 14, 2017
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…
Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #16)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in NEMLA, Updates on February 6, 2017
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….
CFP: NEMLA 2017 (Baltimore, MD)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in NEMLA, Updates on September 7, 2016
Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #12)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in NEMLA, Updates on August 31, 2016
Greetings from Chicago!
Summer’s warmth is still here but the days are starting to get shorter and the mornings a bit chillier. Fall is slowly on the way. On the UIC campus, classes are back in session. Walkways that were filled with just a trickle of students a few weeks ago are now swarmed with students and faculty searching for their classrooms. This semester, for the first time in years, I had a sizable number of students show up to the wrong class. I’m glad that I still start my first class with the “just in case you’re in the wrong place” speech. I’m also glad that I’ve worked at UIC long enough to know how to direct students to the right place. Since most of the students I work with are First Year students, small gestures from faculty mean a lot. They set the tone for the academic year.
In my last post I promised to update you on my attempts to re-learn French. Well, my report will be pretty short. When I left for Vermont to visit my parents, I completely lost momentum. This has been a persistent problem for me. As an undergraduate and even as a graduate student, there was enough of a community to encourage me to keep studying and improving my second language abilities. On my own, the record of study has been very mixed. I wonder how many of my readers have faced a similar difficulty. Have you found a way to over come it? Are you will to share that approach? Anyway, I’ll close this very short update with a plug for Duolingo. It really is a great language learning app, particularly if you are looking to develop conversation skills in a second language. I’m not sure how useful it is for writing and reading purposes as it doesn’t systematically address issues of grammar.
Regardless of my failures to re-learn French, knowledge of a second language is incredibly valuable for literary scholars. Part of what makes literature unique is its self-referentiality. This is made possible by an author’s exploitation of the gap between connotation and denotation in a given language. You can only really understand this gap if you study a language with patience and persistence and have at least one other language to compare it with. If you have the time and/or money to study another language, take advantage of the opportunity. In spite of the fitful ways in which I’ve studied second languages in my life, I’ve still felt a benefit from that study. It has almost been for me what traveling the world has been like for some of my friends, a chance to become less intellectually provincial.
Because my project to learn another language kind of fell apart, this month’s blog post will be fairly short. I’d like to end by putting in a special invitation to all my readers to consider attending this year’s NEMLA conference in Baltimore, MD. There are many great sessions currently scheduled that could use your paper abstracts. I’ll be chairing two. The first is a panel on the symbolic role of Agriculture in US and Anglophone fiction. You can read a description of the session here. The second is a round table session on teaching War Literature since 9-ll. You can read a description of that session here.
Research will be the focus of my next blog post as I’m working on my second book. In the meantime, whether you are teaching, researching, or using your education outside of a traditional academic setting, I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer.
Until next time…
Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #10)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in NEMLA, Updates on June 7, 2016
Greetings from Chicago!
Summer is a strange time to be an academic. Many in the general public imagine professors taking off for the beach or to country cabins to lounge about until the fall semester begins. The reality, as I’m sure you all know, is considerably less romantic.
My spring semester finally ended in the middle of May. I had papers from two composition classes and one course in literary theory to grade and then needed to go through my grading spreadsheets to calculate student final grades. Once those final grades were calculated, I uploaded them and then faced the next challenge, answering student emails about their final grades. I don’t know how many of you face this each semester, but I have at least five or six students each term who can’t understand why they didn’t receive an A. These, of course, are usually the students with poor attendance records and even poorer writing. Of course, in the corporatized world we live and work in, the attitude seems to be “I paid for an A. Give it to me.” Two of these students were persistent enough that I opted to meet with them to review their final papers. They still weren’t happy with my decision, but I felt that I had acted in a professional manner dealing with their complaint. That’s the best I could hope for in both cases.
After finishing up grading for the spring semester, my next task was as NEMLA area director. I reviewed the session proposals for the 2017 conference in Baltimore. This is a time consuming activity, but is generally enjoyable. I’m always impressed at the wide range of research interests I see in these proposals. The only distasteful part is having to reject proposals. The careful vetting of proposals at this early stage, however, prevents having to deal with major problems later. I always have an eye out for whether a session will garner paper submissions and participants. I also try to imagine myself as a person submitting an abstract to a particular session. Is the conceptual framework of that session clear? Do I have an idea of the type of papers the session chair is looking for? These are key questions that any conference session proposal should answer.
Acceptance and rejection emails for NEMLA sessions have now gone out and the Call for Papers is now open. I have two sessions proposed. One a panel session on the representation of agriculture in US fiction. You can read the description and submit abstracts here. The other is a roundtable on the teaching of 19th and 20th century war literature since 9/11. You can read the description and submit abstracts here. There are also a wide range of great sessions proposed for this year’s conference. You can see all those descriptions here.
Once I finished reviewing session proposals for NEMLA, I got to work with Lisa Perdigao, the Cultural Studies area director to set up a Special Event speaker for Baltimore. I think NEMLA members will enjoy the talk for 2017, which builds upon themes from this year’s conference speaker Jelani Cobb.
Then it was Memorial Day and my summer (in the conventional sense) could finally start. Of course, now I have an essay to write that is due this fall and still need to attend bi-weekly placement essay readings for the First Year Writing Program as well as revamp my course syllabus for the fall. But this is a state close to relaxation. I also have enough money coming in each month, thanks to our current union contract, that I don’t need to find additional work this summer. I know that I am blessed in this respect as many of my colleagues are looking for summer teaching or other work to fill the gap between now and September. I just wish that I made enough money to take a real vacation. It would also be nice to have a summer that didn’t turn into a research sabbatical for the next book or essay.
My blog post for this month is late due to all the busyness described above. It’s also a bit somber as I re-read it. This is due in large part to the sad state of affairs in Illinois. We are still without a state budget and probably will continue to be until after the fall elections. Who knows how many of our state colleges and university’s will still be around once that budget is passed. It’s also turning out to be an incredibly violent summer here in Chicago. Austerity is starting to take its toll.
I hope your summer is off to a good start whatever you are doing. Today I’m going to give myself permission to relax and recharge. I think I’ll start with another cup of coffee and my knitting basket. Yes, I knit. We can talk more about that in another post.
Until next time…..
Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #9)
Posted by johnacaseyjr in NEMLA, Updates on April 28, 2016
Greetings from Chicago! The spring semester is almost over and faculty and students are preparing for summer break. Of course, it feels more like winter here today as the temperatures in the city will be lucky to reach 48 degrees. A good day to stay indoors and read.
Don’t forget that tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a session proposal to the NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore.
Information on the types of sessions you might propose for the conference can be found here https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html .
You can propose your sessions on the CFP website via this link https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html.
In my last post, I combined a recap of the NEMLA 2016 Conference in Hartford with an examination of the broader theme–Why Write? This theme seemed to dominate the conference sessions I attended. This month I’d like to consider the related questions of how and why we read.
How we read in and out of the classroom was a question that came up frequently during the round table session I chaired in Hartford on reading American Literature with Digital Texts. We looked at some of the formats in which electronic texts are distributed and how close reading techniques such as annotation can be used with them. One of the more interesting trends explored was the use of software that allows collective annotation of electronic texts, specifically Lacuna Stories . I’m not totally sure how to use this software, but it does seem to address what has long been one of my concerns with electronic texts. Reading in the context of an English class requires an attention to language that goes beyond scanning a webpage for content. We often call this special type of reading “close reading” without really thinking much about the mechanics involved in the process, aside from reading a text multiple times. Annotation, however, is the crucial difference between casual reading and reading with a purpose. Lacuna Stories allows this process to transfer from the analog to a digital environment. Even more importantly, it allows students and faculty to share those annotations (or not) and learn from each others reading process. This is a great example of using technology to achieve a goal that might not be possible in an earlier classroom setting.
But why do we read in the first place and is there any connection between this activity as it happens outside the classroom as well as in? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot because I’ve been teaching ENGL 240 this semester, Introduction to Literary Criticism and Critical Theory. This course is required for all English majors and minors at UIC and it is presumed that this will be among their first English classes, preparing them for upper level surveys and seminars. Finding a baseline for teaching students in this class is very difficult, as each student comes with a varied educational background. Some of my students are transfers from community colleges who have extensive knowledge of how to read and write about fiction. Others are just out of high school and haven’t read much fiction at all. Add to that the groups of students who speak English as a second language and those who are interested in an English major or minor predominately for Professional Writing skills (Corporate Communications, Public Relations, Journalism, etc.) and you have an almost impossible task staring at you. First, to find out what prior knowledge this diverse group of students possesses and then to devise a course plan that works to build upon the commonalities in what these students know.
What I’ve found this semester, is that my students don’t read much fiction at all. They watch a lot of fiction. They even write a considerable amount. But reading fiction, not so much. This even includes what we might refer to disparagingly as “fan fiction” or “pulp fiction.” My students watch their stories rather than engage them through the written word. The challenge for me this semester has thus been to turn their attention to the written word and explain what to do with a fictional text (i.e. close reading) as they read. Oddly enough, this experience has felt a lot like what I experienced studying Latin and Greek at UVM during my undergraduate years. An intellectually stimulating exercise that in large part felt separated from the world around me. I could escape for a few hours into the world of Livy, Vergil, and Catullus and not worry about current events.
I realize that at this point I’m starting to sound like “that” professor, vaguely luddite, who laments their student’s inability to perform at a level they deem acceptable. If you read The Chronicle of Education at all, you know the type. My colleagues have even asked me when I talk to them about the problems I’ve faced getting students to read carefully: How is this any different from the way things have always been?
My answer is, I don’t know. Perhaps this problem has always been with us, but I feel like something has shifted. I’ve taught at UIC for 15 years, part of that as a Graduate Student Instructor and part of that as a Lecturer. During that time, the baseline I can assume for student knowledge has shifted away from text based narrative to alternative forms of storytelling. In the meantime, English pedagogy has generally stood still. That’s why what I’m teaching students feels more like Classics than English.
I continue to teach students how to read written language carefully in spite of my doubts and concerns because I believe in the power of imagination and the written word. Most of the communication we encounter on a daily basis is obsessed with utility and the way things are now or could be in the near future. Fiction (at its best) opens the door to a world we hardly thought possible. It looks beyond the far horizon and asks Why Not? My understanding is that University studies should prepare students to create a world that doesn’t yet exist rather than replicate the one that we have or tweak its existing parameters. Fiction is crucial to that task. And nothing, in this bibliophile’s opinion, makes that possible like sitting down and immersing yourself in a good book.
Now that I’m finished writing, I think that’s what I’ll do next.
Until Next Time…
NEMLA 2017 Call for Sessions
Posted by johnacaseyjr in NEMLA, Updates on April 5, 2016
The call for sessions at the NEMLA 2017 conference in Baltimore, MD is now available. You can propose a traditional panel, a round table discussion, seminar, creative session, workshop, or poster session. A description of each session type can be found on the NEMLA website at this link: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session/sessions.html
The deadline for submitting a session proposal is April 29. To submit a proposal go to: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention/session.html
In the Anglophone/American Area, sessions are particularly sought for in these areas:
- Fictional Depictions of the United States Civil War (especially those involving Baltimore or the “Border States”)
- Scholarship on the life and works of Frederick Douglass
- Maritime History as it relates to American Literature
- Relationships between music and poetry
- Scholarship on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe
- Depictions of urban race relations in American fiction.
Sessions on other topics, of course, are welcome. NEMLA is also committed to creating an inclusive environment that welcomes scholars regardless of their affiliation or employment status. If you are a High School teacher, Independent Scholar, or Contingent Faculty member, please consider proposing a session on a topic of interest to you that you believe might have a broader interest among scholars.
I hope to see some familiar faces from Hartford in Baltimore and look forward to meeting new scholars at NEMLA 2017.