Posts Tagged NEMLA
Greetings from Chicago!
Looking at my list of Blog Posts, I see that it has been since October that I’ve last written anything for this column. I guess the easiest way to explain that (aside from Holiday planning and travel) is that I didn’t have much to write about in those intervening months.
Today I decided to open my computer and write what will be my second to last post as Director of Anglophone/American Literature at NeMLA. My position ends at this year’s conference in Pittsburgh.
Before I launch into the topic for this post (the role of the imagination in literary studies), I just want to take a moment to thank a few people who have made my experience as Director incredibly rewarding. First, there’s Ben Railton, who put into my head the idea that I could self-nominate for this position and actually get elected. Then there are my fellow Director’s Susmita Roye and Lisa Perdigao both of whom I have had the privilege of collaborating with on Special Events programing. I learned a lot from their past experience. Thanks to Carine Mardorossian for being so patient with me as a newbie to NeMLA and to Brandi So who helped me with more than a few software glitch issues. Finally, I’d like to thank the members of NeMLA, without whom there wouldn’t be a need for a board at all. It’s been a privilege to serve you in the role of Director and a real treat to get to view the session proposals for the entire conference. Let no one tell you that literary studies isn’t strong as a field. It’s simply evolving (perhaps a bit slowly) to meet the times.
I hope to meet some of my readers in Pittsburg and hear the wonderful research projects you are working on. Remember to look for my signature bow tie. : )
Several semesters ago, I taught a version of a course on Literary Criticism and Literary Theory that began with a pair of essays. One was by Susan Sontag and the other by Jean Paul Sartre. In the first of these essays, Sontag decried the violence of literary analysis as it is taught in schools, ripping apart a work of art to see how it works rather than appreciating it for what it is–a mode of expression where the parts are greater than the whole and meaning can never fully be discerned. She made the daring claim that we should simply learn to emotionally engage with art as art rather than forcing it to mean something. Sartre, in contrast, argued that art and artists had an obligation to engage their audience to effect change in the world. (It’s not accidental that Sartre is probably better known and understood for his fiction than his philosophical treatises.)
These essays were meant to provoke a semester long conversation on what exactly this thing we call “literature” is and what as dedicated readers we are supposed to do with it. Not surprisingly, we came to no consensus on these issues. Here are how my thoughts have evolved on the subject since I first chose to introduce it in this class.
On the one hand, I find myself agreeing with Sontag. Poems, Short Stories, Novels, all the ways that humans can be creative are not like machines that can be ripped apart and studied for how and why they work. Perhaps the best critique of this reductionist approach to literature comes from Edgar Allan Poe when he explains his poem “The Raven.”
Yet, on the other hand, I can’t help but feel drawn to Sartre’s perspective that no form of communication is disinterested. Even artists want something from us.
How do I reconcile these twin beliefs? I focus on characters in fiction who become more real to us than the people we see on the streets every day.
This semester I am teaching an Introduction to American Literature course. I’ve always been committed to teaching works by lesser known and local authors. This spring I chose to meet that goal by teaching a course on Chicago Literature.
So far we have read poems by Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks. Works by contemporary poets Eve Ewing and Kevin Coval are yet to come. We’ve also read novels by Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) and Richard Wright (Native Son) and still have works by Nelson Algren and Bill Hillmann waiting for us towards the semester’s end.
Since our classroom looks out on the loop and the Sears Tower, it’s not hard for us to envision the world these writer’s create.
Teaching the Sandburg poem “Halsted Street Car,” I told my students to think of their morning commute. How many of us have seen the exhausted workers whose faces are “tired of wishes / empty of dreams.”
Reading Sister Carrie, I asked them to imagine her walking through the State Street shopping corridor, arm in arm with her dapper salesman boyfriend Charles Drouet. Who, I asked, are the Carrie’s they see walking that same street today? Where are the Drouet’s? The materialist desires both represent are far from gone. Otherwise, why would the stores still be there?
With Native Son, we reflected this week on the legacy of the Kerner Report and the growing number of black males in prison. I asked my students to find cases similar to that of Bigger Thomas and they delivered. I asked them to imagine what Bigger’s life would be like without racial barriers and we couldn’t. Even in our imagination he remained a criminal, just maybe not a double murderer.
Now as we move on to Gwendolyn Brooks, we are considering the role of black women in the worn out communities of the South and West Sides who are asked to hold the tattered fabric of community together against tremendous odds.
I see Sister Carrie and Charles Drouet, Bigger Thomas and his mother, Sandburg’s Contemporary Bunkshooter, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Sadie and Maude and Chocolate Mabbie. I see them all when I walk the streets of my Chicago.
And what do these fictional characters become real mean to me?
First, they remind me to be careful. That it is easy for the imagination to wander into the realm of stereotype and through that engage in prejudiced actions.
Second, they remind me that although Chicago is a city that isn’t kind to fools and where a wrong turn can lead to a quick end, it is also a city of resilience and incredible kindness (especially among those who have nothing). Some of the kindest and most decent people I have meet are from areas in the South Side that outsiders are warned to stay way from.
And third, they remind me that the imagination is about envisioning what isn’t there or what might be and not simply a way to see “what is” in a different light. One persons’ realism, after all, is another person’s utopia.
As a teacher, I never know what my student’s will take away from my classes. Teaching literature itself can be as unpredictable as the art we examine. I do hope, however, that my students will think about the thorny issue of how “art follows life” and use that as a spur for action. To create the neighborhoods they want to live in rather than driving over the same damn potholes their grandparents cursed at.
Until Next Time….
Greetings from Chicago!
The start of the fall semester is fast approaching and while I will miss the more relaxed schedule of my summer days, I am looking forward to meeting the incoming class of first year students at UIC. I often forget how unique my experience is on campus as I look out at a group of students who are truly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and religion. These students teach me about what “America” is actually like and what it can be in the years to come even as I help teach them the literacy skills they will need to succeed.
Fall is always the busiest semester for me and this fall is no exception. I’ll be teaching four sections of Academic Writing I, the first class in the First Year Writing sequence, with a total of 96 students. This year I’ve decided to focus that class primarily on genre so that we can consider how the forms we choose to write in signal to our readers what we intend and shape the ways we use language. I also plan to consider how our language choices as writers can shift the ways in which readers understand a genre. Stay tuned as the semester progresses to hear more on how my writing classes are going.
In this month’s blog post, I’d like to consider the role of classroom design in the way that faculty teach. For those of us who read Inside Higher Education or The Chronicle of Higher Education, articles on the death of the lecture and the need for more active forms of student learning are commonplace. There has also been a resurgence lately in these publications of articles on the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom. What gets missed in most of these articles, however, is any real discussion of the actual classroom. How is it designed?
As with most form’s of infrastructure, the physical reality of the classroom is taken for granted. A board, some desks, a few square feet of floor space sufficient to cover max enrollment. Maybe a TV or projector system. But if colleges and universities want to change the way they teach, there needs to be greater emphasis on the spatial design of the classroom.
Traditional lecture halls were designed with a sloping or step down tier system. There also tends to be a curvature to these lecture halls. Students eyes are thus directed downward towards a common focal point–a lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector screen. Aside from the access issues these rooms present for physically disabled students, who might not want to sit all the way in the back or right up in the front, this traditional design sends a clear message about who is in charge and how knowledge gets distributed. Some faculty might try to counter this trend by using the room in a unique way, but the design can’t help but frustrate that intent. Group work and peer to peer discussion will always lead back to the focal point down below.
Rooms designed for a lecture/discussion format or a lab are a little better in terms of floor design. The floor space is flat and holds a smaller number of students. Some have fixed desks while others have movable desk and chair combos. Often, however, the square footage of the room prohibits a great deal of movement of these desks. It also takes considerable time and effort for faculty and students to rearrange desks for small group activities and discussion. The path of least resistance, therefore, is to leave them pointed towards the lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector. Student vision is distributed in a straight line but is still directed towards the professor. Thus turning the classroom on most days into a smaller lecture hall with a flat floor.
Of the two existing options in classroom design, the spaces allocated for lecture/discussion classes have the greatest potential for adaptability. They often, however, have too many students in them to make movement practicable on a regular basis. One solution, certainly controversial, is to reduce the number of students placed in these classrooms or at the very least to revisit how max occupancy standards are arrived at. On my campus, the Fire Marshall is the main factor determining this rather than pedagogical research. There is definitely a need for more research on the optimal number of students that should be in a room for a certain type of teaching method to succeed. This would give student advocates and faculty interested in changing to more active learning strategies some data to make their case for much needed changes. Right now, much of the discussion on this topic remains anecdotal and (therefore) gets ignored by campus administrators.
For those campuses lucky enough to have the money to build new classroom facilities, the issue is a different one. Should new lecture halls be built to create spaces for an evolved version of a venerable teaching method? Or should all new class space follow the call for more active learning (sometimes called a flipped classroom)? I’m of the opinion that new construction should contain spaces for all types of educational method currently applied such as lecture and lecture/discussion. New experimental spaces should also be constructed that allow for project based learning–small group activities and discussions. These spaces should imagine such active learning as on-going and not simply one method of using a lecture/discussion space.
This fall one of my first year writing courses will be held in an experimental classroom. It is a traditional lecture/discussion classroom that is being fitted with new desk and chair combos as well as touch screen monitors assigned to various clusters of desks. These monitors are supposed to allow students to work in small groups on assigned activities easier as well as discuss readings. The monitors are connected by a wireless system to the podium at the front of the room, which will allow me (should I choose to do so) to project what each group is working on up on the main projector screen for the entire class to see. I’m sanguine about what I’ll be able to accomplish in this set up with that group of writing students. As I get a better sense of what is different, I’ll let you know since I’m also teaching in three more traditionally designed lecture/discussion classrooms.
What I can say before I even get started in using the space, is that I’m afraid classroom designers (and some faculty) focus too much on technology (projectors and screens) as well as desks. The real focus (in my opinion) should be on square footage, focal points, and lighting. There should also be some consideration on storage for backpacks and winter coats as well as access to electrical outlets. For the experimental classroom I’m teaching in, I believe that racks will be installed under the chairs. We’ll see how that works. The electrical outlet set up will remain the same. Temperature of the room and wall color are also important. And, just as important, the room should make disability access seamless. Too often, the design of a classroom makes it feel like disabled students are being accommodated. They should be allowed to feel like the other students attending the class.
I hope that you all enjoy the waning days of summer.
Until Next Time…
The due date for NeMLA abstracts is fast approaching–SEPTEMBER 30. NeMLA will be meeting in Pittsburg, PA this year and will showcase a wide variety of research in the fields of literature and language with a conference theme of “Global Spaces, Local Landscapes, and Imagined Worlds.” You can view a full list of sessions proposed for this conference here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp.
Every year Area Directors have the opportunity to promote sessions and roundtables on topics of interest to them or that they believe are under-represented at the conference. Among the sessions and roundtables I’ve proposed this year are:
What Counts As A War Story?
This roundtable will examine narratives of war that don’t fit the traditional mold of male-oriented and combat-centered fiction. After all, there are many ways to serve in the military and plenty of women in uniform. You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16693.
Material Culture Studies and American Literature
This panel examines the tension between objects and ideas in American fiction. What do U.S. authors have to say about the physical environment around them? How does it support or contradict their beliefs about the world? Papers on book and periodical history are also welcome. Especially when the author addresses their own concerns about the production and distribution of their work. You can submit an abstract for a paper to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16694.
Teaching Disability in American Literature
This roundtable continues what was a fruitful discussion in Hartford, Connecticut on the topic of disability in American literature. I’d like abstracts to consider not only new texts to teach as part of a disability studies curriculum but also new ways of teaching disability in the classroom using fiction. You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17059.
What Happened to the Reader?
This roundtable considers the experience of non-traditional and non-specialist readers of fiction. Presentations are especially welcome that examine teaching literary texts in not for credit courses and among non-traditional student populations. You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17060.
I hope you’ll consider submitting a proposal for NeMLA 2018. If you have any questions about the sessions I’ve proposed, please feel free to contact me about them.
As a reminder, NeMLA welcomes all scholars regardless of their employment status. A limited number of travel awards are available for Graduate Students and Contingent Faculty. You can find out more information about these awards here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/awards/travel.html.
Enjoy these last few days of summer and I look forward to seeing some of you in Pittsburg!
Greetings from Chicago!
Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside. From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus. Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families. I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend. After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses. Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.
For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses. Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public. Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand. These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me. First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing. Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.
Let’s start with the issue of communication. Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars. One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading. Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology. They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German). When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated. However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex. In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature. Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work. Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”
Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing. I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre. But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field. I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight. Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me. Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience. It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups. Lecturing is not just a technique. It is a tone of voice. To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order. Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking. Everyone is an expert in something. Share that expertise.
Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline. In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read. It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience. Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression. My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications. I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature. We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.” I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?). In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze. Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination. Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.
None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship. For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom. Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today. As are book clubs. Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public. I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works. Obviously, however, this is not enough. What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning. Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree. Improve what is there and expand it. We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts. Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?
I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post. But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December. I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years. I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends. I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.
Until next time…
Greetings from Chicago!
The leaves are starting to change color on campus and there is a chill in the air. Fall is slowly coming here to the windy city. We’re now more than half way through the semester at UIC and it shows on the faces of students and faculty. Everyone is ready for a break. If nothing else, it will get us away from the constant noise of construction that follows us from one space on campus to another. In the meantime, we press on.
My last blog post focused on my research. This one will be a bit of a grab bag. One of the major downsides to being a Full-Time Nontenured Faculty member is the lack of time for research. This semester I’m teaching four First Year Composition classes and its hard to find time in between course prep, grading, and meeting with students to read the sources I’ve collected from the library for my second book project. Right now, I’m slogging my way through an economic history of farming written by Willard W. Cochrane. His text is giving me a useful overview of the shift in farming practices over the course of US history. Careful notes are helping me remember where I left off each time I set the book down to counsel a student on the best way to format a literature review. I recognize, of course, that having any time at all to research is an oddity for most NTT Faculty, especially those who teach part-time. My situation as a Lecturer is far from ideal, but it is certainly an improvement to the days when I was paid by the course and had to travel in between campuses.
As with most things in life, the academic profession is a series of pluses and minuses. The minuses for me are the stagnant pay and lack of research opportunities. The pluses are the security of a yearly contract, benefits, course schedule, and now an increasing recognition of my past research on campus. It might not seem like much to outsiders, but my being assigned to teach a section of the Sophomore level American Literature survey (ENGL 243) is a major advancement not just for me but a sign of how work conditions are improving for NTT faculty in our department. I’ve also been invited to a faculty author’s reception hosted by the UIC Chancellor’s office to celebrate the publication of my first book (New Men) last year. This also is a major advancement in NTT conditions on campus since I was not recognized for a long time as a faculty member. Finally, there’s the fact that I am writing this blog as part of my duties as Director of American Literature for NEMLA, a position that has traditionally been held by TT faculty. So life is not all gloom and doom for those off the tenure track. Progress, I often have to remind myself, is incremental and not necessarily linear. I continue to advocate for NTT faculty and for nontraditional students on campus, planting seeds for trees I will probably never see fully grown.
Part of what has helped me become more integrated into my campus is hutzpah. If there’s something I’m interested in, I find a way to get involved. This was the case with a recent event discussing the construction plans for a new classroom building on the UIC campus. I saw the faculty massmail advertising the event and showed up, the only English faculty member and probably the only NTT faculty member in the room. The usual types were well-represented, of course, various Vice-Chancellors and diverse Deans of subject areas few can adequately comprehend. There were also a few TT faculty from Math and Chemistry as well as Engineering and Social Sciences. During this session, the designers explained the overall goal of their plan. They want to design a classroom that encourages “student-centered” learning. Normally phrases like that give me the creeps. They have this “edu-speak” ring to them that is common amongst folks who talk a lot about education but have never stepped into a classroom. This presentation, however, held my attention because it focused on how the physical design of a classroom might change (in a positive way) how faculty teach.
Physical design of classroom space at UIC is a frequent topic of conversation among our faculty. Usually in the form of complaints about how a classroom’s designs prohibit us from doing the type of teaching we would like to do. For years I’ve wanted to experiment with multi-modal composition in my writing classrooms but have been stymied by the lack of a good computer and projector to exhibit projects, poor wi-fi reliability, and classrooms that are too small for students to move around in comfortably to work. Our buildings at UIC were designed for an era when the lecture was king. In spite of our best efforts to increase the discussion/activity functions in teaching, the rooms often lead us back to the lecture because it’s easier to do so. So what would a class that makes lecturing hard if not impossible look like? I saw a few examples of this in the presenter’s mock up drawings.
The example most relevant to the size of the courses I teach (18-25 students) was a room that could hold a maximum of 35 students. That room had a white board in the front, a fixed computer podium, projector and interactive screen (i.e. a screen you can write on with dry erase markers). Students sat at square tables made from joining together two rectangular ones. Four students to a table. These were arranged throughout the room. On the side walls were touch screen televisions that could be used by students for break out sessions. Each television was connected to the main projector in the room as well as to the internet.
The whiteboard, podium, and projector set up still make it possible for a faculty member to lecture, but it is harder for students to see the material. They need to move around because they don’t sit in fixed rows oriented towards the front board. The room is also longer than it is wide, making it difficult to project your voice from front to back. Consequently, this room discourages faculty from talking to the class as a whole and encourages them to move away from the podium to walk among their students and check in with individual groups. This is something that I already try to do in my composition classes. The square footprint of our classrooms, however, make it harder for me to do this. The room fits exactly 24 students (according to fire code) and that is the number I have. Add backpacks and winter coats and it soon becomes impossible for anyone to move about in the room. A 35 person room with 24 students in it would be like heaven. Adding technology to the room and more natural light would simply be a bonus. I can imagine providing students in a classroom such as this with a task to complete in a set period of time. I would then check in with each group as they work and show the entire class particularly unique methods to addressing the task.
Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to the design proposals I saw. One is the assumption that all our students have laptops or tablets that function like laptops. The digital divide is real on our campus and is only slowly being addressed. You can’t complete homework assignments on a smartphone even though many students try to do this. Another is maintenance. Lincoln Hall is currently one of the most advanced classroom buildings on our campus and its technology is fast becoming outdated and very beat up through heavy use. I’m constantly having to reconnect or jiggle loose cables and find adaptors to connect new devices that no longer have VGA or standard sized HDMI ports. Finally, design alone cannot drive pedagogy. It can force us to think more carefully about how we teach, but only faculty meeting with other faculty can hash out what the role of the lecture should be in each course and discipline and how it should relate to more active learning techniques.
All of this brings me to my conclusion for this post, which is a question. What does your ideal classroom look like? Mine would be large enough to have zones for distinct modes of learning. One zone would have a circle of desk/chair combos near a white board for lecture/discussion. Another zone would have tables and chairs for writing and research. And yet another would have comfortable chairs for students to sit and read, thinking through their understanding of a concept. Students could move freely through this space depending on what task they needed to accomplish. My syllabus would reflect this. Each day would emphasize a certain mode of learning and blend them together as needed. At least one wall would provide natural light that could be filtered or blocked to allow showing films and videos. There would also be ample storage for student backpacks and coats so that they don’t have to be placed on the floor.
Multiple focal points in a room. Multiple modes of learning in a syllabus. These are my goals. We’ll see if the new classroom building UIC constructs makes this possible. In the meantime, we make do with the tools at hand.
Until next time….
Greetings from Chicago!
Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance. In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus. One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall). Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window. A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal. It’s very hard to focus in my office. I’ll be glad when they’re done.
Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing. I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out. All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment. This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive. Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing cost in housing, healthcare, and services. Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring. And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment. Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior. But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin. I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”
In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests. For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for? You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans. I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves. My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way. It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war. Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming. Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war. In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain. Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen. These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.
Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming. One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus. Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict. In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period. Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.
All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil. Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture. As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape. Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone. Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity. Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States. One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.
Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book. As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture. Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.” Farming and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century. The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.” Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.
But what takes root and how? What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not? This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle. When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration. Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants. Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.
I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment. Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship. (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.) William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason. In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.” He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).
The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US. I will share what I learn with you on this blog. I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems. If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.
Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.
Until Next Time….
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…
Greetings from Chicago! The long hot days of summer are here in the city. Normally I’m an outdoors person, but the heat has kept me in the air conditioned confines of my apartment the past few weeks, reading through the giant stack of books gathered during the past academic year. I’ve also been working on a few writing projects and tidying up my living space before heading off to Vermont to visit my parents.
My thoughts in the past few months have turned in a few different directions. Foremost on my mind have been the violent events going on throughout the world. Some faculty (the most vocal of which is Stanley Fish) would have us bar the doors to current events and personal experience and make the classroom a sacred space, a true ivory tower. We all know that this isn’t possible. Students and faculty live in a less than ideal world where the walls of the ivory tower are already so full of holes that using those walls for protection is absurd. The struggle for me is thus not whether or not to bring these “outside matters” into the classroom but how to do so in a meaningful way. Every teacher has a slightly different way of addressing this issue. Here is my approach. First, I ask myself what events most lend themselves to the skills I am teaching within my discipline (English) and within my course. Then I consider what impact these issues will have on student interaction in the classroom.
The first set of questions is pedagogical in nature and forces me to reflect on the nature of what I think I’m doing in the classroom. What are my goals for students at each stage of the course I’m teaching? I haven’t taught a literature class in quite some time so my general list of goals is typically matched to the curriculum for a first year writing course, the predominant class that I teach at UIC. During the fall, I will be teaching a research paper course so my general goals for students are: to understand why research is important, to learn what constitutes research, to create steps for constructing and managing a research project, and to understand how to integrate research into your own writing. Nearly any set of current events or personal interests could be matched to these general goals. However, I wanted to meet my students half-way and create a course focused on themes related to their academic (and perhaps personal) interests. Since UIC’s students predominantly choose to major in engineering, business, and medicine, I selected “infrastructure” as the focus of my course.
Most people think of roads and bridges when they hear the term infrastructure. They also might wonder what these structures have to do with current events at all. My approach to infrastructure, however, goes beyond considering the physical environment. I tell students in the first few weeks of class that infrastructure is best understood as any element of our community that if it were removed would make the community cease functioning properly. This definition clearly includes elements of physical infrastructure but it also includes specialized workers and types of knowledge needed to keep a community operational as well as shifts needed in that knowledge base to meet changing times. Using this expanded definition, it is possible for us to examine infrastructure in terms of our political system and also to scrutinize the role of race in determining how communities are built and maintained. Flint, Michigan’s water supply problems provided me an excellent teaching tool last semester. This coming academic year policing and crime will more than likely play a prominent role. It’s no accident that violent crime in Chicago takes place predominantly in neighborhoods that have long been neglected by the city for infrastructure improvement.
Of course, my plans for the fall semester will be shaped by the students I teach and I won’t meet them for several more weeks. In some semesters, I have students who live in the situations we are discussing in class. They may or may not want to talk about the environment they experience day to day. Embarrassment is just as powerful a motivator for what to talk or not talk about as trauma or fear. Other semesters, I have students who live worlds away from urban neglect in well-tended suburbs hours distant from the city. These students present a different challenge as they often hold the attitude that “Well, my parents succeeded. Why can’t they?” My task as I design my course is to find a way to reach both groups of students. Those for whom the issues we discuss might be “too real” and those for whom it is just another segment in the news.
In all these instances, I try to be aware of the power dynamic present in the classroom. This is why I am a cautious practitioner of using current events and personal experience in the classroom. As their professor, I hold the ability to pass or fail these students. My evaluation is always in the back of their minds. No student should ever feel pressured to think or act the way I do. If that is what they take away from my class, I’ve failed. I want them to feel comfortable enough to disagree with me while at the same time learning to articulate in a reasonable way why they disagree. Or, at the very least, to examine an angle of the issues discussed that didn’t originally occur to me. Students often agree with the general framework of the course, but look at the details in a radically different way from me. This turn of events makes me happy, provided their point of view is backed up with reasons and evidence.
I’m now reaching the end of this month’s blog post and will just share with you briefly one last thought that has been on my mind. I’ve long felt self-conscious about my poor abilities in foreign languages so I’ve decided to do something about it this summer. I’m studying French, a language that I first encountered in elementary and middle school and have studied on and off for years. I’m using an app called Duolingo to get started. I’ll let you know how the process is going in my next post and discuss the relationship of foreign languages and literatures to the study of English.
Until next time…..
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…..
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…