Friday, January 30, 2009

Generous Contribution from Alumnus David Bruce Smith Funds New Course in Jewish American Literature

Read the official press release:


WASHINGTON - A new course on contemporary Jewish American works of literature has debuted at The George Washington University this spring thanks to a significant gift from David Bruce Smith, B.A. '79, a member of the University's Board of Trustees. The gift is funding "Literature Live," a unique class within the Department of English that allows students to study and interact with prominent Jewish American authors. Renowned writer and GW professor Faye Moskowitz teaches the course.

"David Bruce Smith's generosity is enabling the English department to deepen its strengths in Jewish American literature, a vibrant field that we would like to see grow at GW," said Jeffrey J. Cohen, chair of the GW Department of English. "The students in Faye Moskowitz's course have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As department chair, I am happy to see this course become a reality. We are doing something at GW unparalleled at any other university in the United States."

Award-winning authors and novels to be studied throughout "Literature Live" include Away by Amy Bloom; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; Moskowitz's A Leak in the Heart; The Family Diamond by Edward Schwarszchild; The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer; Maus by Art Spiegelman; The Far Euphrates by Aryeh lev Stollman; and Petropolis by Anya Ulinich. While on campus, several authors will give readings open to the entire GW community. Ulinich will read on March 5; Chabon, who will be introduced by GW's Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Edward P. Jones, will present on March 23; and Spiegelman will read on April 2.

"It is my hope that this gift will help grow Jewish literature teachings at The George Washington University," said Smith. "'Literature Live' will be a uniquely GW experience for students."

David Bruce Smith and his family are longtime benefactors to GW. He has established two scholarship funds for undergraduate students at the University and provided support for other GW initiatives such as the Cancer Institute and the President's Fund for Excellence. Last year, the Robert H. Smith and Charles E. Smith Family Foundations and Robert P. and Arlene R. Kogod committed $10 million to GW for the renovation of the Charles E. Smith Center. At the time of the announcement, the gift was the largest single philanthropic commitment in GW's history. David Bruce Smith sits on the board of the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation. Robert H. Smith and Charles E. Smith are David Bruce Smith's father and grandfather, respectively, and he is the nephew of Robert and Arlene Kogod.

Moskowitz said, "Thanks to the generosity of David Bruce Smith, some fortunate GW students -- and their equally lucky professor -- will encounter the work of established, as well as emerging, Jewish American writers and then have an opportunity for face-to-face dialogue with those writers."

GW's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences' Department of English also recently received a significant gift by Albert Wang and his family. The gift includes support for the Wang Visiting Professorship in Contemporary English Literature and the Wang Endowed Fund in English Literature and Literary Studies, which will fund an annual series of lectures by prominent authors and scholars. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones was named as the first Wang Visiting Professor and currently is in residence for the spring 2009 semester. Renowned scholar of literature, Latino studies, and performance theory Jose Munoz was named as the second Wang Visiting Professor and will be in residence during the 2009 fall semester.

The Department of English is an active research community of scholars and creative writers who prize excellence in teaching, publication, and service. The department has about 300 undergraduate majors and an award-winning faculty of more than 30 professors. It is nationally recognized for its strengths in both literature and creative writing. Long known for its expertise in African American literature, the department also is renowned for its research and publication in early modern and medieval studies; ethnic literature, including Asian American and Jewish texts; 19th-century literature; and creative writing.

Located in the heart of the nation's capital, The George Washington University was created by an Act of Congress in 1821. Today, GW is the largest institution of higher education in Washington, D.C. The University offers comprehensive programs of undergraduate and graduate liberal arts study, as well as degree programs in medicine, public health, law, engineering, education, business, and international affairs. Each year, GW enrolls a diverse population of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 130 countries.

Edward P. Jones Reading Response

After Chair of the English Department Jeffrey J. Cohen introduced GWU President Steven Knapp who introduced author Edward P. Jones, Jones read two selections from his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Known World:
  1. From Chapter 5, the story of Sherif John Skiffington attempting to quell the fears of his sister-in-law Clara Martin. This roughly corresponds to pages 147-154 and 162-164 in the Amistad paperback edition of the novel.
  2. From Chapter 8, the story of runaway slave Jebediah Dickinson and his attempt to collect a gambling debt from Fern Elston. This roughly corresponds to pages 247-260, excluding the last paragraph on 260.
Jones began each excerpt by providing a brief history of the characters involved, to help the audience understand their relationships in the excerpt. Although primarily intended for those who had not read the novel, I also appreciated Jones’ notes as refreshing my memory of the text. Jones then took questions from the audience. It turns out that his opening line––“My soul’s often wondered how I got over…”––was based on a remembrance (or misremembrance) of a Negro spiritual, and it appealed to Jones so he placed it at the beginning of the book. The phrase was not intended to have larger significance in the text, although a case can be made that it does have larger significance in the text.

I will not catalogue the way in which Jones spoke, stood at the podium, or returned to his seat. Those details are best absorbed by attending a reading in person. I will mention one thing about the audience’s reaction to his reading. The audience laughed at Jones’ few intentionally-humorous phrases. On at least once occasion, however, the audience laughed at a sentence that would not be humorous when reading the entire novel, but which was humorous in the context of the excerpt:
“All this time Mann thought he was dealing with a white woman and he was never to know any different” (255).
I assume the majority of the audience laughed at the notion that anyone would be so foolish to mistake a white woman from a black woman. Except, by this point in the novel, Jones has fully established that Fern appears white; it is only her heritage that makes her “black.” In the context of the entire novel, Mann’s mistake is unremarkable; it is ordinary. And the ordinary is not intended to be humorous.

Links for You:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Real Reason We Picked Jones & "The Known World"

At approximately 6:00 PM today, Edward P. Jones finished his inaugural reading as the first Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary Literature. Now, I am finally able to reveal the truth behind the selection of Mr. Jones as the first Wang Visiting Professor.

There exists a clause in the bylaws of the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences that the selection of any new faculty member, visiting or otherwise, must be slow and difficult. I can testify that such was the case for the selection of Edward P. Jones. Faculty deliberated in the English Department war room. The superiority of Strunk over White was debated. The aggregate weight (kg) of Nobel laureates was compared to that of Pulitzer winners. Much shaking of fists, wringing of hands, and pointing of fingers occurred. Other less appropriate hand gestures were witnessed. In a moment of inspired malice, candidates for the professorship were eliminated based on their use of the Oxford comma. To decide between the final candidates, a Google Book Search was conducted. Edward P. Jones emerged victorious.

The real reason why the English Department selected Edward P. Jones as the spring 2009 Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature:
On the day they saw Hope and the mule in the rain, that child, Wilson, had been a year and some months in Washington, DC, at the medical school of George Washington University. Wilson had learned a great deal at that university, and his mind would have contained even more but well into his second year the cadavers began to talk to Wilson, and what they said made far more sense than what his professors were saying. The professors, being gods, did not like to share their heaven with anyone, dead or alive, and they sent the young man home in the middle of his second year. – The Known World, Page 343
For the record, the medical school was put on probation for having an excess of loquacious cadavers, not because it has too many self-righteous professors. Every university has too many of those.

Tonight is THE NIGHT

Edward P. Jones
Inaugural Reading

The Jack Morton Auditorium
School of Media and Public Affairs, First Floor
Free and open to all, though seating is limited

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Known World, Mr. Jones is the Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary English at GW for Spring 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

“My soul’s often wondered how I got over…”

As Jeffrey previously observed, GWU will be experiencing another inauguration tomorrow: that of the university’s first Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary Literature. I can only hope that Mr. Jones, with his hand firm upon The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, does not flub the swearing in.

With another new beginning at hand, it is appropriate for me to revisit my inaugural post as Communications Liaison. Some twenty-seven days ago, I presented my initial observations on The Known World as a way of introduction, and of demonstrating that I actually read the book. In my earlier musings, I suggested that Jones’ enigmatic zeroth-page words “My soul’s often wondered how I got over…” come from the mouth/mind of Henry Townsend. I confess that I developed this theory midway through the text; during the penultimate chapter, I had formulated an alternative explanation; after the final chapter, I had again accepted Henry Townsend as the likely speaker. I will elaborate on this point for two reasons:
  1. Self-indulgence, for my briefly-entertained alternative theory is more interesting than the likely reality;
  2. Question of Authorial Purpose, for I daresay Jones consciously intend for me to formulate a certain theory, reject it for a more intriguing one, and then be forced to accept it again in the face of last-minute evidence.
Let me explain. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

The focus on Henry Townsend in the first half of the book––his childhood, his family, and his death––implies his ownership of the opening phrase. It is easy to picture him observing and recollecting the events of the novel after having “gotten over” to Heaven. However, the latter half of the book (especially after Chapter 7), provides evidence supporting the thesis that it is Calvin, not Henry––Caldonia’s brother, not husband––who is speaking those words from Heaven. This evidence culminates in the penultimate chapter, presented as a letter written from Calvin to Caldonia. Calvin writes of arriving in Washington, D.C., a place he has always wanted to visit. He has met Alice Walker and Moses’ wife and son, who run a successful hotel. They give him steady employment and good lodgings. All developments that are contrary to what Jones previously led his audience to believe.

In the preceding chapters, Jones never mentions Calvin successfully arriving in Washington, D.C.; he writes only that Calvin spends much of his later years caring for his ill (and undeserving) mother. His arrival in his “dream” city can just as well be his arrival in Heaven; the ease with which he finds friends and employment a sign of Heaven’s bounty. Similarly, Jones allows his audience to believe that Alice, Priscilla, and Jamie were murdered by Moses. Their unlikely appearance can be taken as another sign that Calvin is beyond the grave. The chapter’s epistolary form suggests that Calvin is communicating to Caldonia from a distance––if not from the real D.C., then from Heaven.

Some of this evidence might be dismissed as coincidence. However, Jones is not shy of magical realism or of toying with his audience’s expectations. He has shown that there is life after death, as in the cases of Augustus and Mildred Townsend. The ostensibly minor status of Counsel Skiffington, written out of the narrative in Chapter 2, is reversed when he reappears in Chapter 7 and becomes a major actor in the latter half of the book.

In all, it seems more likely that Calvin’s letter is written from Heaven than from reality. The only flaw in this interpretation is that Jones makes it clear that Calvin has written a tangible letter to Caldonia. If the novel ended with Calvin’s valediction, then it would be implied that he was indeed writing from Heaven; the actual ending of the novel (Caldonia reading the letter) precludes this. The only way my alternative theory works is if
  1. Caldonia is imagining reading the letter, as in a dream;
  2. The tangible letter is another example of magical realism, and was indeed sent from beyond the grave.
As it is, I believe these assumptions are too large to make. I wish Jones had ended the novel with Calvin’s letter, allowing for a more ambiguous interpretation of the text. The survival of Alice et al. has major implications for the portrayal of Moses and John Skiffington. The fact that I can reasonably posit an alternative interpretation of the novel’s end raises questions about Jones’ intent. Is the audience intended to identify the speaker of the opening phrase? Is the audience intended to reverse its ideas about the opening phrase? If so, why?

Perhaps at tomorrow's reading by Jones, I will seek the answers to these questions. In the meantime, I would love to hear your responses to my possible alternative interpretation.


Edward P Jones will read from The Known World and his short stories. He will take audience questions, and he will be introduced by President Knapp.


The event takes place at 5 PM on Thursday January 29 in the Jack Morton Auditorium (School of Media and Public Affairs). The reading is free, and seating is on a first come basis.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dante Alighieri's Star Meter is Up 8% at the IMDb; Also, Emmanuella Chiriqui

[fig 1: The IMDb doesn't know what Dante looks like]
by J J Cohen

So John Filardi, an alumnus of the GW English Department, is here teaching a course on screenwriting, focused upon comedy. By all accounts it has been a terrific class.

Today he invited Emmanuella Chiriqui (Sloan from Entourage) to his class. When I accidentally by happenstance and without forethought chanced to be lurking by the door as the class ended, she and I struck up a conversation (as celebrities and their stalkers oft will do). I asked her what movies she has appeared in recently. She mentioned Saint John of Las Vegas and I nodded sagely ... then ran to my office to look it up on the IMDb. Seems Chiriqui is playing a stripper named "Tasty D. Lite" in the film. But that isn't the odd part -- or, at least, the oddest part: listed as one of the writers of Saint John is Dante Alighieri.

Probing deeper (I am a tireless researcher), I discovered that this vaguely familiar Dante fellow has not only composed many a medieval text used to beat into intellectual submission the youth of our high schools, he has also been the writer of many films. Many of these works are, of course, adaptations of The Inferno. Dante also has a movie called (naturally) Beatrice. Most surprisingly, he is credited with the soundtrack to La Double vie de Véronique. Among his genres? "Drama | Fantasy | Comedy | Adventure more." Among his keywords? "Hell | Female Nudity | Dante | Inferno more." So says the IMDb, which also offers that his "STARmeter: ^ 8% since last week." I'm sure it's always nice when your STARmeter is up -- but what is a STARmeter, and what is its unit of measurement, and how far up is too far up? Can you explode if your STARmeter rises too quickly?

And I still couldn't figure out why Saint John of Las Vegas should be credited to the great poet of Florence. Here's its synopsis: "a buddy comedy in the vein of Raising Arizona meets Sideways, that chronicles the subtle, life-changing journey of JOHN [Steve Buscemi], a former Vegas blackjack player, who, as a result of circumstance and forces beyond his control, is inevitably drawn back closer and closer to Sin City." Sure, one character is named Virgil (played by Romany Malco) (yet another buddy movie in which the white guy learns life's lessons from the chap with more skin pigmentation). There is nothing in the plot that could be called Dantean ... but then I found this declaration: "A loose adaptation of Dante's Inferno."

Very loose, I am guessing. But then again my STARmeter is down 22% since last week, so what do I know?

[x-posted from In the Middle]

Another Venue for DC Literary Events

Calder posted some excellent links, and I want to add one more.

I'm a big fan of Sixth & I, a historic synagogue at the heart of downtown DC that provides a home to all kinds of arts and literature events. Many of these events having nothing to do with Judaism: the building is as beautiful a setting for a Toni Morrison reading as for a shabbat service. You can subscribe to Sixth and I's weekly updates via their website.

Coming soon: The Mountain Goats, every English major's favorite alternafolk band. With album titles like Heretic Pride and songs like Grendel's Mother, the medievalist in me is pleased.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Le Culte du Moi Literary Magazine Launch Party

A PSA from one of GW's literary magazines:
Le Culte du Moi
Winter Issue Launch Party
Wednesday, February 4th @ 7pm
Mitchell Hall Theatre
Free and open to the public

Get a free copy of the Winter 2008 issue, share your writings at an open mic, and enjoy French food.

We're not pretentious. We're post-tentious.

SPRING 2009 - Now Accepting Submissions!
Spring 2009 Submission Deadline is April 15.
Literary taxation without representation.

Email for more details
Join the Facebook group

Fresh-Baked English Links

Our sidebar has grown quite long, lengthened by the occasional poll, a request for feedback, and list of department supporters. Scrolling the entire length of our sidebar can be a daunting task, so let me call attention to a few promising sections in which you might be interested, and to which you will hopefully contribute.

First, we have collected various hyperlinks relating to English @ GW, which will help you find websites related to the GW English Department.

Next, we are proud to supply you with hyperlinks related to English @ DC. This modest collection of literary links will guide you to English-themed events and organizations in the District of Columbia (and surrounding areas). If you know of any more websites that might be of interest to DCitizens, don't hesitate to post them in the comments section.

Our Friends on the Web section is home to other websites we like, but which are peripheral to our main goals of promoting English literature at GW and in DC. Each link below might relate to one of three keywords (English, GW, DC), but seldom all of them. Want to be our friend? Let us know in the comments.

As we collect more links over time, we hope to expand these sections. We always want to provide more services to you, the reader--so make sure you contribute links of your own, and check our sidebar often for info that might make your day a little bit more interesting.


Please Join the Department of English for the

Edward P. Jones
Inaugural Reading

Thursday January 29 at 5 PM
The Jack Morton Auditorium
School of Media and Public Affairs, First Floor

Free and open to all, though seating is limited

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Known World, Mr. Jones is the Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary English for Spring 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Special Event for Alumni on Feb. 18

While we are all looking forward to the Edward P Jones Inaugural Reading this Thursday at 5 PM in the Jack Morton Auditorium, alumni of GW will want to add another event to their calendar. You must register in advance, and may do so by following the link at the bottom of this post.

Knowing "The Known World"
A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Edward P. Jones
Feb 18, 2009 6:30PM - 8:30PM
The George Washington University Alumni House @ 1918 F Street, NW

Description: Please join Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Spring 2009 Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature, and four renowned GW professors, for a lively conversation about The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004, this beautiful and heartbreaking novel follows the complicated history that unfolds around a Virginia plantation, owned by a former slave who has purchased slaves of his own. A meditation upon racism, humanity, memory, and the power of art, The Known World is a fantastic book.

Faculty members from the Departments of English, American Studies, Political Science and History examine what their disciplines have to say to Edward P. Jones's work. Mr. Jones himself will respond, then join in the free-ranging discussion. A book signing and reception will follow.

The cost of this program starts at $8 and includes the conversation and reception. Advance registration is required and space is limited.


Tyler Anbinder, is Chair and Professor of History. Professor Tyler is an expert on the American Civil War and its legacy.

Elisabeth Anker is Assistant Professor of American Studies. Professor Anker's research interests focus on the connections between American politics, philosophy and culture.

Jennifer James is an Associate Professor of English. Professor James teaches African American literature and has written about 19th century African American literature of slavery and the Civil War.

Edward P. Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and the Spring 2009 Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature.

Forrest Maltzman is Chair and Professor of Political Science. Professor Maltzman studies legislative and judicial decision-making.

Sponsored by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the GW Alumni Association

You must register in advance, and may do so here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Are You Thinking About the Folger-GW Undergraduate Research Seminar?

If you are a sophomore or junior at GW, you should be. Information and an application form can be found here. An excellent magazine piece with video can be found here.

The deadline is March 20 (during spring break, as it turns out) -- but it is not too early to start on the application and start your planning for Fall 2009.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Honors in English

To: English Majors
From: Marshall Alcorn and Robert McRuer

January 23, 2009

Dear English Major,

Welcome back to campus! You are warmly invited to apply to the English Department Honors Program. Department Honors offers a unique opportunity to participate in an intensive and supportive year-long program, comprising the fall and spring semesters of the senior year. The following email gives you details of the program and instructions, for this spring, on how to apply.

After students have been accepted into the English Department Honors Program, they participate, in the fall semester, in a small (6-12 students) seminar focused on contemporary theory and application
to texts. Readings in recent seminars have included the theoretical work of Raymond Williams, Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Gilles Deleuze, Elaine Scarry, and Amitav Ghosh.

The fall semester seminar also prepares students for writing the honors thesis. A step-by-step process moves students through research strategies and theoretical frameworks to the writing of the thesis proposal; intermediate drafts are discussed in the seminar, enabling students to engage with each other's projects and to form a support system for the final semester.

During the spring semester of the senior year, students take a three-credit “course” designed to provide time for writing the thesis. Students meet regularly with a Director and Reader of their choice, and produce a forty-page thesis which reflects research in and development of a topic of particular interest to them.

To prepare students who wish to apply for the Honors Program, the English Department will offer this February and March a workshop series in Literary Studies. The series comprises three workshops on undergraduate research. All students who wish to apply for the English Honors program (but not those studying abroad!) are expected to attend the three workshops. The series will include workshops on

• New Directions in English Studies, featuring English department faculty (3 PM on February 9);

• Library Skills and Resources, featuring staff from the Gelman Library and the Library of Congress, as well as faculty from the Folger Shakespeare Library (3 PM on March 9);

• How to Write a Thesis, featuring current English Honors students (in late March, following spring break).

Please let Marshall Alcorn know as soon as possible ( if you will sign up for the workshop in Literary Studies! This course may be taken for 1-credit, and the CRN is 48006.

Some bureaucratic information:

• You do NOT need to be a member of the University Honors Program to participate in English Honors. If you ARE a member of the UHP, the English Honors sequence will fulfill UHP requirements forboth coursework and senior thesis.
• The seminar counts as a theory course for the English majors’ requirements.
• You CANNOT substitute any other course for the seminar; you must be on campus in the fall of senior year.
• You CANNOT write the thesis while not on campus.

• Application forms are available in the English Department office. These should be submitted to the office or to Marshall Alcorn by Wednesday, March 25, 2009. In addition to the form, please submit a transcript and a writing sample.
• You can certainly apply from abroad. Get the application from Connie Kibler ( via email, and send me the completed application by email or snail mail if there’s time.

Please feel free to contact Marshall Alcorn or myself with questions! I would also be delighted to see you in my office hours to talk about the program in person: I am in Rome Hall 769 on Tuesdays from 2-3:30 PM and Thursdays from 1-3:30 PM.

Sara Houghteling at 6th & I

I've just returned from 6th and I, one of the most beautiful synagogues I've entered ... and a lively space for the arts in DC. The English Department hopes to work more closely with them in the future.

Here is an event for your calendar. GWU students can come for free. RSVP to and/or bring your student ID to the event.

Novelist Sara Houghteling
Monday, February 23 at 7:00 pm

Sara Houghteling will read from and discuss her luminous debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, and talk about the real-life events and figures who inspired it. Set in a Paris darkened by World War II, the novel tells the story of a son’s quest to recover his family’s lost masterpieces — Picassos, Matisses, Monets — looted by the Nazis during the occupation. Houghteling spent a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship conducting research on wartime Paris, the art world, and the tragedy of looting by the Third Reich. Listen to the author discuss how she wove fact into this stunning work of fiction.
Sixth & I
600 I Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Closest Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown

SIX days and counting

6 days remain until the Edward P. Jones reading at the Jack Morton Auditorium (Thursday January 29 @ 5 PM).

In his GW debut as a scholar of literature, GW President Steven Knapp will introduce Mr. Jones.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Hippo Lives

In results that surprised everyone me, our poll has declared that the Hippo mascot will LIVE. One hundred and six votes were received, forty-two for execution and sixty-four for preservation. That means 60% of our blog readers like the pudgy beast. Even Obama didn't win by that kind of margin.

So ... vive l'hippopotame! Now, would anyone like to design a new English Majors T-Shirt that makes use of him?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Happy Day-After-Inauguration

I hope that you enjoyed yesterday's festivities as much as I did ... and I hope that you are not suffering from the same difficulties in transitioning back to the workaday week.

If you'd like a glimpse of what inauguration looked like to me and my son, you are welcome to browse my photos (you don't need to be a Facebook member to see them). Feel free to post a link to your own photos in the comments to this post, below.

And ... don't forget that we have an inauguration of our own coming up: Edward P Jones will read from The Known World and from his short stories on Thursday January 29 at 5 PM (Jack Morton Auditorium).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

PostSecret Founder Frank Warren at Lisner Auditorium

Friday January 23rd // 07:30 PM // $7 students; $10 public // GWU Lisner Auditorium


PostSecret Founder Frank Warren at Lisner Auditorium

Tickets are selling out for January's PostSecret event, featuring website creator Frank Warren! Warren will be speaking at Lisner Auditorium on January 23rd, 2009 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $7 for students, $10 for public. Seating is general admission. You can purchase tickets at TicketMaster Online, in person at the Marvin Center TicketMaster box office, or at the Lisner Auditorium box office (hours: Tuesday - Friday, 11am - 5pm).

In his talk, "America's Most Trusted Stranger," Warren will share the powerful stories behind the postcards and secrets he has received since starting the website in 2005. He will also discuss the uniqueness of PostSecret, its importance, and why he has made suicide awareness part of his life's work.

PostSecret is a community art project in which anonymous individuals write personal secrets on postcards and mail them to Frank Warren. Every Sunday, Warren posts a selction of these secrets on the PostSecret blog. The blog has resulted in a traveling art exhibit, four books, and speaking tours of college campuses. Warren is also an advocate for suicide prevention and wellness resources.

Get involved in PostSecret! Here's how:

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inauguration Weekend

by J J Cohen

So you may have heard that the DC area has gone a bit overboard in prepping for the Inauguration and its attendant hoopla.

All bridges to Virginia, for example, will be closed -- apparently to prevent Karl Rove from leaving his home in Arlington and mingling with the multitudes. I am gladdened that this longtime security risk has at last been neutralized, but why did it take eight years? Democratic Marylanders like me can just glide on down ... or, in all honesty, walk: it's only five miles, and we have been warned repeatedly that the subway system will be so crammed with people that a stroll will be faster than a Metro ride.

A security perimeter will be set up around the parade, and once the streets have reached their maximum density of revelers per square foot, no one else will be admitted. Expect a small scale riot as would-be Obama gawkers hurl their bottles of spring water and their energy bars at the police (we have been warned to bring our own food and water because it will be very difficult to move once we are inside the security zone). Oh yes, we are also not allowed to pee unless we want to wait in a line that stretches to the crack of doom. So far the only thing that has not been decreed is the hanging of large banners around the District that announce YOUR JOY WILL BE KILLED and WOULDN'T YOU BE MORE COMFORTABLE WATCHING THIS AT HOME?

Our university is not all that far from the White House, and so we have been bombarded with messages about safety and security and the apocalypse that looms. My favorite was yesterday's email update, which included this section:

Tips for Personal Safety: Prepare in Advance

  • Be sure to purchase in advance and/or pre-load Metro SmartTrip cards before Inauguration Weekend. Also, visit ATMs to ensure you have sufficient cash before the crowds hit D.C.
  • Refill necessary prescription drugs and remind your guests and visitors to do so as well.
  • Be careful while texting and walking. These activities combined can be very dangerous and may cause falls, collisions, and bottlenecks.
  • Be mindful of information from unofficial sources. If you receive e-mails or text messages from unofficial sources that an incident has occurred, proceed with caution and look for official sources to verify it.
  • Dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. Women attending the GW Inaugural Ball should either wear or bring with them comfortable, flat shoes in the event that they must walk unexpectedly.
Yes, mother. My SmartCard will be loaded (even though the Metro will be so crowded that I am supposed to walk). I will visit the ATM so that I will have a wad of cash to bribe my way through the barbed wire of the parade security perimeter. I will load up on extra Zyrtec in case my allergies flare up. I promise to dress in an extra heavy coat (but not TOO heavy: at the security perimeter bulky people will be turned away). My shoes will be flat and comfortable because I know when you say "be prepared to walk unexpectedly" what you really mean is "be prepared to run when the police teargas the excluded people at the security perimeter hurling Cliff bars and Evian bottles." Most important of all, I will not walk and text at the same time because I know that I will stumble, fall, and be trampled until I am a small red spot on the concrete. This spot may freeze up, others will slip, bottlenecks will emerge, and we will have inauguration mayhem, all caused by texting while walking.

Happy Inauguration, everyone. See you back in class Wednesday.

[x-posted to In the Middle]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kill the Hippo?

Unless you are reading the GWEnglish blog via Facebook, Google Reader, or some other RSS feed compiler, you will notice that to your right we have introduced our very first poll. The question we are asking is nearly cosmic in its importance: should the English Department adopt a new mascot, or is the noncolorful Hippo statue you see on our blog and Facebook page to be retained?

ARGUMENTS FOR MASCOT MURDER AND REPLACEMENT: The hippo bears an uncanny resemblance to a former president of this university who is not remembered for his love of books. The hippo is not a literary creature. No great poem has ever been composed about hippopotami. William Shakespeare was indifferent to hippos. This African creature kills more humans per year than lions do. In these lean economic times the hippo is no longer an appropriate symbol. Because of their bulk hippos may be susceptible to diabetes and heart disease. English majors prefer gloomier, more ponderous fauna. The English Department requires a symbol consonant with its dignity: a quill for example radiates a certain gravitas. The English Department needs to stop pretending that it possesses dignity and gravitas: how about a Jabberwock or frumious Bandersnatch? A raven might fit the dour times and suggests Poe, who died about thirty miles north of here.

ARGUMENT AGAINST: The Hippo might be sad.

Please VOTE and let us know.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Inaugural poets

Yes we know: the bars are open til the wee hours, and you will be hungover in next Wednesday's classes. But the inauguration is not just a bacchanal: it is also a literary event, you know.

From an alumna: chuckle for the day

(but we all know where a degree in English lit actually leads)

[thanks, Beth Lattin!]

A Note for English Majors

As you know, award winning author Edward P Jones is our first Wang Professor of Contemporary Literature. He will be in residence in the English Department during the entire spring semester. Mr. Jones is a quirky, brilliant man. His novels and short stories are destined to be read for many years into the future. We are privileged to have him here.

I hope that you will attend his inaugural reading in the Jack Morton Auditorium on Thursday January 29 at 5 PM. Mr. Jones will be introduced by President Knapp, who holds a PhD in English. The event offers public recognition of the value of the humanities at GW -- a university that I love, but that is too often overly enamored of science buildings and the study of policy permutations. Actually, I think it is the most important moment for the humanities in the fifteen years I have been teaching at GW. Please don't miss it ... otherwise your kids will someday taunt you for having failed to absorb the awesomeness of an author that they are studying in their AP English class.

A few seats remain in the four week "Book Club" (Studies in Contemporary Literature) that Mr Jones will lead on Monday evenings in February. You will have the chance to read and discuss four of his favorite novels with him ... and also have the opportunity to get to know him well with a few other students (we are limiting enrollment to ten). We'll ask you to compose a short reflection paper afterwards, and you will receive one credit. Please let me know via email ( right away if you are interested.

Best wishes for a good semester,

Jeffrey Cohen

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Countdown Begins: SEVENTEEN

17 days until the Edward P Jones Inaugural Reading at the Jack Morton Auditorium (January 29 at 5 PM).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The English Department Thanks Its December Donors

The following individuals supported the English Department in December. We thank them for their generous support, especially in these difficult economic times.
  • Christine Coleman (1991)
  • Michal Fromer Mufson (2003)
  • Shoshana Moskowitz Grove (1982)
  • Gail Orgelfinger (1972)
  • Janice S. Snow (1968)
  • Christopher Sten (faculty)
  • John George Sussek III (1979)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Special One Credit Course with Edward P. Jones

The English Department is pleased to announced that Edward P. Jones will be teaching a special one credit course for a small number of GW students.

English 193 (Studies in Contemporary Literature) will meet four Monday evenings in February from 6-7:30. Students will read four novels and discuss them with Mr. Jones: David Anthony Durham, GABRIEL'S STORY; Mary Lavin, IN A CAFE; Chaim Potok, THE CHOSEN; and Richard Wright, UNCLE TOM'S CHILDREN. Only ten students will be admitted to the class.

If you would like to be considered for this once in a lifetime, only at GW experience, please send a one paragraph email stating why you would like to take the course to the department chair, Jeffrey Cohen ( as soon as possible -- but no later than Thursday January 15.

English Department Introduces New BA/MA Program

The GW English Department is happy to announce a new five year program in which majors can earn both a bachelor and a masters of arts.

Open to our best undergraduates, the BA/MA program enables students enrolled in the department's honors program to take graduate coursework in the senior year. Students apply into the BA/MA program as juniors, when they also apply for departmental honors. Those accepted complete their BA at the end of the senior year and graduate with their colleagues. They remain at GW for one additional year to complete their MA.

The combined program enables our brightest students to begin graduate studies earlier in their academic life, providing them the opportunity to study literature at an advanced level within a nationally recognized program. The BA/MA program saves students a year of tuition, since they earn their advanced degree far more swiftly than they would in our traditional program.

A masters degree gives students a competitive edge on the job market and can aid in achieving a further graduate degree within or outside the discipline. The English Department is offering this new program because it realizes that for career reasons many more of its students are seeking an advanced degree. The five year BA/MA offers an affordable and timely means to do so. By taking graduate seminars while still seniors, undergraduates will also find themselves challenged and engaged by some of the best teachers we have in the department.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Free Music. Legal, Too.

Forget that new three-tiered price plan from iTunes. Get your music free from Gelman Library. Humanities Librarian Cathy Eisenhower writes:

The Library pays for it, but you can stream it for free through your desktop and create playlists--for yourself and/or your students. I've been listening to spoken word recordings in Smithsonian Global Sound this afternoon ... All three databases are available via Aladin --categorized under Music, or search by database title.

Smithsonian Global Sound

Over 35,000 tracks of music, spoken word, and natural and human-made sounds. Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries includes the published recordings owned by the non-profit Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label and the archival audio collections of the legendary Folkways Records, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Monitor, Paredon and other labels. It also includes music recorded around the African continent by Dr. Hugh Tracey for the International Library of African Music (ILAM) at Rhodes University as well as material collected by recordists on the South Asian subcontinent from the Archive Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE), sponsored by the American Institute for Indian Studies.

Contemporary World Music

Allows searching and browsing of over 50,000 tracks by instrument, country, region, artist, genre, recording label, and other categories. Search, click, and listen to 50,000 tracks of reggae, worldbeat, neo-traditional, world fusion, Balkanic jazz, African film, Bollywood, Arab swing and jazz, and other genres. There is also traditional music—Indian classical, fado, flamenco, klezmer, zydeco, gospel, gagaku, and more. The albums’ original liner notes are included, both in facsimile and as rekeyed, searchable text.

Classical Music Library

A fully searchable classical music resource—including tens of thousands of licensed recordings that users can listen to over the Internet. The audio selections are cross-referenced to a database of supplementary reference information. Selections range from the earliest Gregorian chants to works by modern composers—including symphonic music, vocal and instrumental music, choral works, and other forms. Content is published under licensing agreements with more than 30 music labels, including major labels and independents.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


From the English-Speaking Union, a nearby event that might interest you:

FRIDAY, JANUARY 16, at 12:30 p.m.

JACK MORTON AUDITORIUM, George Washington University

805 21st Street NW in Washington

Admission Free, but Reservations are Recommended

On December 7, 2001, the British Broadcasting Corproation came to the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University for the first presentation in our country of one of its most venerable offerings. In collaboration with BBC America, ESU Washington helped arrange this event, and for several months those who logged onto could download the audio recording of a special edition of Any Questions? Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but focusing primarily upon the U.S. response to more recent acts of aggression (Al Qaeda's September 11 assaults upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon), host Jonathan Dimbleby presided over a discussion that included reflections by historian Amanda Foreman (author of a biography of the Duchess of Devonshire that has now been made into a major feature film), by writer Ted Halstead of the New American Foundation, by journalist Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, and by bureau chief Hafez al Mirazi of Arab television channel Al Jazeera.

ESU Washington is pleased to announce that Jonathany Dimbleby and his colleagues are returning to America's capital for another installment of a broadcast institution that is now in its seventh decade. Mr. Dimbleby is one of Britain's most reverered journalists, and among his numerous distinctions are several influential books, among them The Palestinians, The Prince of Wales, The Last Governor, and Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People. Once again the BBC is assembling a fascinating panel, to include journalist Christopher Hitchens and other notables, and once again they'll tackle the issues everyone is eager to confront, among them the implications of a new American presidency that promises to bring fresh approaches to what the Bush administration has long referred to as a "War on Terror," as well as to other aspects of both foreign and domestic policy.

Seating will commence at 11:45 a.m., and proceedings will be under way by 12:30 p.m. As in 2001, members of the studio audience will be selected to ask questions that will help determine the session's agenda. At 3:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time), a recorded version of the proceedings will be aired over Radio 4 from London. For those who wish to hear it from outside the United Kingdom, this timely presentation of Any Questions? will also be available at

To reserve for a unique pre-Inaugural occasion, and to suggest topics for consideration, all you need to do is e-mail ESU Washington's Executive Director, Mark Olshaker, at or call him at (202) 234-4602.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

GW MEMSI receives its charter

Good news!

President Steven Knapp has written to inform us that the GW Medieval and Early Modern Institute has been chartered from December 2008 to December 2012, contingent upon continued adequate funding.

Thank you, everyone, for your support ... and we look forward to the years ahead with you.

All of our events are free and welcome anyone who would like to attend. If you live anywhere near the DC area, check out our blog, with its exciting traveler on an elephant mascot. A calendar is maintained on the side: you'll see that next up is David Wallace. Details to follow.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Tammy Greenwood-Stewart Reads from her New Novel, Two Rivers

You have three chances to hear acclaimed novelist and GW creative writing teacher Tammy Greenwood-Stewart read from her just-released book Two Rivers:

Sunday, January 11th
POLITICS & PROSE, Reading & Signing, 5:00 PM
5015 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008

Tuesday, January 27th
BARNES & NOBLE, Reading & Signing, 7:00 PM
4801 Bethesda Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814

Sunday, February 8th
THE WRITER'S CENTER, Reading & Signing, 2:00 PM
4508 Walsh Street
Bethesda, MD 20815

Thursday, January 1, 2009

“Liaison. A Book of Maps. The End Helps the Beginning.”

Salutations from the new English Department Communications Liaison, Calder Stembel:

“Liaison” is the first word on the first page of the first novel by Edward P. Jones. It is also the first word of a less renowned piece: this blog post. On the first of the first of 2009, “Liaison” is the first word of my first blog post as Communications Liaison for the GW English Department. A position that will find me liaising with students, faculty, and administration with abandon and glee.

Technically, eight words appear before “Liaison” in The Known World, on the zeroth page of the novel: “My soul’s often wondered how I got over…” More on these words later. The point of this paragraph is how I got over––to be the new Communications Liaison, blog contributor, and all-around friend to the English Department. I won’t bore you with the details; I’ll just write a few words in the style of Jones’ chapter headings, and you can piece together the rest:
“Sophomore. The Drama of Literature. Cinematic Shakespeare. Technology Improves Bacon. Trivia In Jeopardy.”

If you’re still reading, the next few paragraphs discuss The Known World. Spoiler Alert: Henry Townsend dies. (Otherwise, my thoughts are spoiler-free.)

Back to the introductory phrase that Edward P. Jones was kind enough to include on page 0 of The Known World, so as not to disturb my wonderful introduction. “My soul’s often wondered how I got over…” It is easy to ignore these words the first time you read The Known World. Not because they are printed at the absolute bottom of the zeroth page of the novel (they are), but because they are meaningless until you have finished the book. Why do authors introduce their novels with phrases that only become meaningful when you finish the book? With the book’s 388 pages behind me, I would like to posit a possible meaning of this phrase. Imagine “protagonist” Henry Townsend sitting in Heaven, looking down at the world. Imagine him reflecting upon his life. Imagine him regretting owning slaves, and wondering how the hell he got into Heaven (pardon the juxtaposition). Mystery solved. I feel like a kid from Ghostwriter.

Jones’ title is similarly meaningless until you have finished the book. In the fine tradition of To Kill A Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye, the title is derived from a minor incidence within the novel, but is also significant to the work as a whole. In this case, the title explicitly refers to a map of the world owned by John Skiffington, and mentioned in Chapter 5. Here, Jones writes: “The map had come from the Russian in twelve parts, each weighing about three pounds, and Skiffington had had a time putting it together” (174-5). In the same way, Jones pieces together disparate characters and events into a holistic map. The stories of a Canadian publisher, an executed Frenchman, and a twentieth century academic seem tangential to the main narrative, but enlarge the world of the main characters. Jones’ “known world” is not one of geography, but of personality. Having finished the novel, I don’t have a clear picture of Manchester, of William Robbins’ plantation or Henry Townsend’s house. But I have a better conception of the relationships between black and white, slave and free black, husband and wife, and lover and mistress; Jones elucidates them more clearly than river lines or mountain ridges on a map. Jones excels at portraying a large, lived-in world, one that is not a small, isolated Virginia town, but one that is but a piece of a larger country and larger narrative.

Jones’ title is mentioned in the chapter heading to Chapter 5: “That Business Up in Arlington. A Cow Borrows a Life from a Cat. The Known World.” Every chapter is introduced by similarly enigmatic phrases. My new title is mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 1: “Liaison. The Warmth of Family. Stormy Weather.” The headings are initially reminiscent of Brecht’s technique of Verfremdungseffekt (“distancing effect”), used in plays like Mother Courage and Her Children, in which initial chapter summaries remind the audience of the artificiality of the play. Jones’ headings also remind us that we are reading a book, a representation of reality, and not experiencing reality itself. However, unlike Brecht’s summaries, Jones’ headings are meaningful only after reading the chapter. Although they are a reminder of artificiality, they help the reader to remain actively engaged in the text: at the end of each chapter, I found myself paging back to check Jones’ heading, to see if I could recognize his allusions. They are yet another piece of the narrative map Jones constructs to reveal The Known World.

When you have finished navigating The Known World, there are a few more ways in which you can engage the text. Be sure to read “An Interview with Edward P. Jones” in the Post Script of the book. Most of your lingering questions about his technical and authorial decisions will be answered. When you have finished that, find a current picture of him, so you can be sure to recognize him when he passes you on campus. To get a better look at Jones, attend his inaugural reading on Thursday, January 29, 2009, at 5 p.m. in the Jack Morton Auditorium (free and open to the public). Be sure to thank the English Department and your new Communications Liaison.