Sunday, January 31, 2010

It's February. What do Do?

So you're wondering what to do before the English Department's BIG READ on February 11 at 4 p.m. in Rome 771? (That event, as you recall, will give you an exclusive audience with the fabulously witty and talented Howard Jacobson, known to Brits as a novelist, newspaper columnist, broadcaster, and all-around public intellectual, and yet curiously underappreciated on this side of the pond.)

Well, we have a suggestion. February will see GWU playing host to a number of events for its Black Heritage Celebration. The impressive line-up features talks, a step show (go if you've never seen one), and an opening event exploring Afro-Latino connections in the Americas (of special interest to students who have taken ENGL 40: Literature of the Americas, or studied with English Professors H.G. Carrillo or Tony López).

If you can only attend one event, this blogger's personal recommendation would be GWU History Prof. Adele Alexander's talk based on her book Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin. (Melanin is the chemical compound found in humans that largely determines skin pigmentation.) This dual biography traces the story of Ida Alexander Gibbs and William Henry Hunt, a talented couple who traveled the world and knew many of the most significant figures of the 20th century. But since the Hunts were, by U.S. racial definition, black--William had been born into slavery--their opportunities were severely limited. The book narrates their remarkable lives and the difficulties that they confronted because of "race."

Prof. Alexander, an acclaimed historian and a graceful writer, was recently nominated to serve on the National Council of the Humanities, the body that advises the National Endowment of the Humanities. (In short: a very senior position in the most prestigious national humanities organization.) She is also, not incidentally, the mother of Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who read her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at Pres. Obama's inauguration.

Prof. Alexander will read from and discuss Parallel Lives on Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. in Marvin 405. If you're curious about how race operated in the era of Jim Crow--and how the history of the "color line" infiltrates our lives in the age of Obama, this is the talk for you.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Reflecting on Readings: Myla Goldberg at DCJCC


Myla Goldberg may be a “freak of nature” as she describes herself. From meeting her earlier on Thursday, I certainly found her charming, witty, and quirky in the best possible way, so her self-labeling at her reading at the DCJCC was odd to me. Then again, Goldberg could be seen as a rarity within the book-publishing world. For although there are thousands of aspiring authors every year, she was one of the few who actually wrote her brilliant idea down and then broke through and successfully propelled a novel that combined spelling and mysticism into the National Bestseller list. Reaching such a high point at such a young age could be troubling; many authors find themselves at the sophomore slump by the time they are expected to publish again, but not Goldberg.

She did notice the theme of her next novel shifting. She has always described Bee Season as a deeply “personal” novel. Writing a personal novel can be very draining though. “There is a lot of introspection and self critique. It’s exhausting, you kind of run out of material,” she said. Putting it simply Goldberg said, “My second novel cannot be further from me than I can imagine,” she said. “I needed to get away from myself because I still wanted to write.” Set during the 1918 influenza epidemic, Wickett's Remedy follows the story of a young Irish Catholic woman, who is clearly not Goldberg, but that was the point.

For Goldberg’s third book, she found herself getting personal again. Due out in October, her new novel was initially inspired by the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The idea that forgiveness can only be truly achieved by directly confronting people appealed to Goldberg. She said, “The book is about all that stuff we did when we were younger and didn’t know any better.” In this case, her protagonist was responsible for the death of a girl when she was a child and upon returning to apologize to the child's town, she realizes that her memories are entirely different from everyone else.

The short story Goldberg read on Thursday night also focuses on childhood and small towns, but taking a note from her quirkiness, stems from her fascination with “small strange museums.” “That’ll Be Two Dollars and Fifty Cents, Please” is about a tiny town in Midwest attempting to capitalize on the death of a young child star who grew up there. But just as Bee Season is not just a simple story about spelling bees, this short story to be published in the March issue of Harper’s has a deeper theme. “It's about the nature of ambition. Any artist aspires to be the absolute greatest in the world. This is my personal fascination in how far below I will fall on that mark,” she said. “Everyone peaks at different times. So what do you do if you were one of those people who peaked at eighteen?” The story is both humorous and heartbreaking. Goldberg weaves a fascinating narrative that slowly reveals details as it goes along. Her talent is exhibited once again as she unearths the obscurities within the seemingly “ordinary.”

Friday, January 29, 2010

Meeting Myla Goldberg


Myla Goldberg describes her first novel
Bee Season as a "personal" novel, but do not mistake personal for autobiographical. The tale of young Eliza Naumann, a spelling prodigy and potential mystic, is not Goldberg's own. "My first spelling bee was in fourth grade. I lost on the word 'tomorrow,'" she said when she visited Jewish Literature Live on Thursday afternoon.

Eliza is not just a talented speller, but an ordinary Jewish girl navigating the rough waters of adolescence as exemplified by the spelling bee. This is where Goldberg was able to see her protagonist. After reading an article in a magazine, she realized what really fascinated her about spelling bees were the kids who did not win. Goldberg said, "We're all losers. I'm a loser. I can relate to this." However even with her initial connection to these children, Goldberg found herself doing a lot of research.

Her first plunge into the world of Eliza was actually attending the National Spelling Bee here. "The air was electric in there," she said. "The kids do not know how to dissemble. Every emotion is so clear." What Goldberg observed that day was not just kids spelling ridiculous words, but a greater reflection on American culture. "Everyone must be best at something and the spelling bee is a perfect reflection of this," she said. One can see her initial draw to this culture, but how did Jewish mysticism get into the picture?

As it turns out, Goldberg is no stranger to the constant scramble students face in filling up their schedule at college. On a whim, she found herself in a Jewish mysticism course as an elective. Raised as a Reconstructionist Jew, Goldberg was unfamiliar with the ideas of Abraham Abulafia, a Jew who believed language held mystical properties. The connection between spelling and mysticism was natural to her. She said, "As an artist I have a belief of powers of the subconscious. My back brain remembered about Abulafia and it just fused in my head." The book eventually focused on the themes of family, ritual, and rules as Goldberg wrote it.

Although Goldberg joked about the pile of rejections she received from every publishing company with her previous novels, this was her first published novel. The response to it was overwhelmingly positive, casting Goldberg as "the next big Jewish author." She was honored by all of the attention, but maintains that she does not directly see herself as a Jewish author. "I don't have a background with Jewish writers. It was not what I thought of as I was writing it," she said."I see it more of an American novel with the Jewish experience." Goldberg is anti-label, but appreciates the reception of her writing. "My goal is to keep writing as long as possible, so anything that helps me do that is my friend," she said.

However, Goldberg finds that the Jewish literature label is constricting. "Right now there is a far too narrow band applied to what is Jewish," she said. Her second book is not about Jews, yet because she is a Jewish author, is it still a Jewish book to her. It is a label Goldberg is torn about. When forced to pick a label, she said, "I am a female writer, an American writer, a Jewish writer. I'm a writer."

Goldberg is a writer of short stories, three books (the upcoming novel is due out in October), and a mother of two all since Bee Season. Clearly the novel has affected her life greatly, so has she thought of it much since? "I have not read this book since I finished it," she said. "When I am done with something, I am done. I move on." Where is Goldberg moving to next? Perhaps her writing process is an indication of her plans, too. "I do not actually know what's going to happen yet. I usually go in A to K to Q, but something morphs at Q and it turns into a flying pig," she said. "The cool thing about a book is that I have my own answer, but that is not a definitive answer."

For more on Myla Goldberg, check back tomorrow for a recap of her reading at the DCJCC.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From GW Today: Washington Reading List

GW Today has spotlighted some famous writers that set their novels in DC! Two publications linked to the English department were highlighted. Congrats again to David McAleavey, Christina Daub, and Ramola Dharmaraj for their work on Full Moon on K Street. Congrats are also in order for Thomas Mallon whose book Fellow Travelers was chosen to represent DC. Interestingly enough, the article they link for Mallon is my original piece about him for this blog.

Original Article Below:

Washington Reading List

They cover everything from romance and poetry to political scandal and the supernatural, but these books have one thing in common: their D.C. setting.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson: This compulsively readable work of nonfiction begins with the murder of Abraham Lincoln and traces the escape and capture of John Wilkes Booth and a host of conspirators. Key sites depicted in the book—including Ford’s Theatre and Peterson House, where Lincoln died—are easily accessible from GW. In addition, a Manhunt exhibition developed in conjunction with author James L. Swanson is at D.C.’s Newseum through May 31.

All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones: A beautifully wrought collection of short stories told from the African American perspective and set in the city throughout the 20th century. The book’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author will join GW’s faculty this year as a professor of English.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty: Set in 1940s Georgetown, the horror story of demonic possession still has the power to scare readers. And the Exorcist stairs, made famous in the 1973 movie, are a little more than a mile up M Street from GW.

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon: GW Professor of English Thomas Mallon sets his compelling novel in 1950s Washington, D.C., where two gay men attempt to navigate double lives at the State Department at a time when “sexual subversives” are increasingly part of the McCarthy witch hunt.

The Night Gardener by George Pelacanos: D.C. detectives investigate similar murders separated by two decades. A Washington, D.C., native, George Pelacanos has written 15 crime novels set in and around the city.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu: The poignant story of the struggles of an Ethiopian immigrant in D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood. The author, who was born in Ethiopia, is a Georgetown graduate.

Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, D.C.: This newly released collection features more than a hundred contemporary poems with subjects ranging from D.C.’s monuments to its lawyers and half-smokes. Edited by Kim Roberts, a former visiting poet at GW, contributors include Professor of English David McAleavey and part-time faculty members Christina Daub and Ramola Dharmaraj.

All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: The classic page-turner chronicles the investigative reporting of its Washington Post authors from the initial aftermath of the Watergate break-in to the resignation of some of its key players. A room in GW’s Hall on Virginia Avenue, then a Howard Johnson hotel, was used as a “lookout” by Watergate burglars.

Sammy’s Hill by Kristin Gore:
Soon to be a movie, this light-hearted story of life and love on Capitol Hill by Al Gore’s daughter is a fast read.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Season of Myla Goldberg: My Take On "Bee Season"


It may seem hard to believe, but your beloved blogger (at least I hope I am beloved) was not always so studious and interested in books (read infiltrating the English department). Back in the day, I was just another five year old who could not recite the alphabet or tie her shoes. My parents remember endless parent/teacher conferences where the words "unfocused" and "uninterested" were volleyed around. It seemed that the only things I cared about were the playground and watching television. Needless to say, when my fifth-grade teacher persisted in praising my leadership skills and effort, my parents were shocked. I guess fifth grade was the magical year for me as it appears to be for many others.

In Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, young Eliza Naumann finally gets out of her television-rerun-watching stupor to succeed in the school's annual spelling bee. Her father, Saul (a cantor always searching for God), has been waiting for years to see potential in his child and immediately starts quizzing Eliza for both their sakes. Eliza's older brother, the "gifted and talented" Aaron, suddenly finds himself left out and at a loss for religion now that his one link to Judaism, his father, has abandoned him. You may be asking where their mother is? This is an intriguing question, for Miriam Naumann is an obsessive compulsive kleptomaniac who takes more interest in perfecting her world than being involved in the world of her children. All of these characters find themselves in the wake of the spelling bee chaos and slowly notice their world spinning out of control. It is a book where all of the characters tread a fine line between spiritual illumination and disillusionment.

Of course, when haphazardly summarized as done here, it is hard to really see the power of Goldberg's subtly heartbreaking and beautiful writing. Even if we disagree with the characters' motivations, we are able to fully see inside them. In a fantastically cinematic fashion, Goldberg introduces us to her protagonists and then carefully zooms into their lives: their pasts, their fears, their needs, and their relationship with God.

This is not just a book about some nerdy girl in a spelling bee, but about a once-functioning family dispersing and finding themselves flourishing and floundering. Although it can be painful to read the obvious mistakes of our four main characters, they are so intricate and real that we cannot help but see some of their reasoning. In class with Prof. Moskowitz today, we had a debate over who was the most sympathetic character. Answers ran the gamut, showing that each of us valued and took something different from this book. I know what initially sucked me in was my relation to Eliza, but as the book continued I found everything propelling me to the bittersweet ending. That is the work of a skilled and wonderful author and one that I am excited to meet on Thursday!

You can see Myla Goldberg too if you come to the
DCJCC this Thursday, January 28 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10, but students get in FREE with their student ID. A link to a map can be found here.

For more fun things on Goldberg and her novel:

The book was made into a film in 2005 starring Richard Gere & Juliette Binoche.

-The indie rock band the Decemberists wrote a song about the novel called
"Song for Myla Goldberg"

UPDATE (added by Prof. Gayle Wald 1/27/10): In other Jewish Literature Live news, the Washington Post ran a very appreciative review this morning of Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A DC booklist--featuring several members of GWU English

Read more here. And Profs. Chris Sten and James Miller teach classes about DC literature. Do you have favorite "DC" books?

We're busy this spring. Really busy.

Here is a list of planned public events offered by the English Department this spring. There is lots available for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends in the wider community. Please put at least one of these events on your calendar.

Several other events are in the works; please check back here for updates.

JLL = Jewish Literature Live (made possible by the generosity of alumnus David Bruce Smith)

HJ = Howard Jacobson, British Council U.K. Writer-in-Residence (in association with the British Council and the Jenny Moore Fund)

MEMSI = Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute


Jan. 28 - Myla Goldberg Reading (JLL), DCJCC, 16th and Q Streets, NW; 7:30 p.m. Free to GWU students with ID

Jan. 29 – MEMSI talk: Alf Siewers (Bucknell University), "Ecocriticism"; 4 p.m. Marvin Center Amphitheater


Feb. 5 - Katerina Kolarova (Gender Studies, Charles University in Prague): Disability and Film Talk (sponsored with Disability Support Services); 3 p.m., Location TBA

Feb. 9 - Rebecca Goldstein Reading (JLL); 6:30 p.m. Marvin Center, Room 405

Feb. 11 - Howard Jacobson Big Read (HJ); 4-6 p.m. Rome 771

Feb. 12 – MEMSI Symposium: "Orienting Early Europe"; 1-3 p.m. Rome 771

MEMSI talk: Michelle Warren (Dartmouth), "The Postcolonial Past"; 4 p.m. Marvin Center Elliott Room 310

Feb. 25 - Howard Jacobson Reading (HJ/JLL) DCJCC, 16th and Q Streets NW; 7 p.m. Free to GWU students with ID

Feb. 26 - “Jewish Writing, Jewish Lives” panel (HJ); Featuring Andrea Levine (WLP), Jenna Weissman Joselit (Judaic Studies), and Judith Plotz, in conversation with Howard Jacobson; all are invited. 2-4 p.m.; Room TBA

Feb. 28 - Film event: Screening of "Jesus the Jew" (2008), a production of Channel 4 in Britain, followed by talkback with Howard Jacobson and Roger Bennett; 5-7 p.m. Betts Theater, Marvin Center. C0-hosted with Judaic Studies.


March 5 - MEMSI Symposium: "Race?" Features Ayanna Thompson and a panel of GW faculty: Jennifer James, Antonio Lopez, Thomas Guglielmo, Andrew Zimmerman; 2 p.m. Marvin Center Amphitheatre.

March 11- Reading by GW Faculty Gina Welch (In the Land of the Believers) and Ramola D (Temporary Lives); 7 p.m. Marvin Center 310

March 25 - Dara Horn Reading (JLL); 7 p.m., Marvin Center Amphitheatre, 3rd floor

March 26 - MEMSI Lunch Seminar: Marissa Greenberg, "Pulling Down the Pillars: Staging Tragedy in Samson Agonistes"; 12 p.m., Rome 771.

MEMSI talk: Marissa Greenberg (U. of New Mexico), "Writing and Space", 4 p.m., location TBA


April 13 - Cynthia Ozick Reading (JLL) ; 7 p.m., Marvin Center Grand Ballroom, 3rd floor

Saturday, January 23, 2010

English Honors: Some upcoming meetings

See this stack of books? English Honors students read them all ... two at a time.

Well, not really. But it's a nice thought. I had a professor in college who had a photographic memory (really). In one class, he began reading Moby Dick and then closed the book and continued to "read." For about 5 minutes.

Ok, that's not English Honors either, but it sure was impressive. English Honors is a competitive program in the English Department that gives excellent and committed students an opportunity to work with other excellent and committed students and write a senior thesis based on original research. English Honors students qualify for "Greek honors," or the variations of cum laude that appear on diplomas. You must be an English major to pursue English Honors and you must apply to the program. A good GPA is a baseline requirement, but English Honors students come in various shapes and sizes, and they have a variety of interests--from prosody to postmodernism, and from Restoration drama to Asian American cultural studies. For students who are contemplating graduate study (particularly in the humanities), an honor's thesis is a very useful thing to have written; it shows prospective graduate schools that you are capable of undertaking sustained research. It also enables you to work one-on-one with a professor/mentor who will get to know your work very well. But you can also pursue English Honors as its own end.

Students who wish to apply for English Honors should plan to attend three "preparation" meetings in February. These are informal and require no commitment on your part. They will l introduce you to the program and selected faculty, and will highlight the kinds of research skills you will acquire in course of earning an honors degree. The meetings are as follows:

1. Professions in the field

February 4 at 3 p.m.

Rome 771

2. Library Research

February 18 at 2 p.m.

Gellman 301

3. Review of Program

March 4 at 3 p.m.

Location TBA

If you have questions about the program, or about the meetings above, please contact Prof. Marshall Alcorn, Director of Undergraduate Studies, at And please spread the word to your friends and colleagues. For students in search of a rigorous capstone to their academic experience at GW, Honors English is an excellent opportunity.

(A fun exercise: Ask your professors if they wrote senior English theses, and if they respond in the affirmative, ask them to describe the topic. Then laugh at how hilariously musty and obsolete their research now seems.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Listen to GW English Ph.D. Dolen Perkins-Valdez in discussion with NPR's Lynn Neary on a recent episode of the radio show "Tell Me More." Dolen is promoting her new book Wench, which is set at an Ohio resort where white male slaveholders take their enslaved black mistresses. The book is based on an actual resort that existed in antebellum times. Dolen will be reading on campus later this semester.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Did I Miss Anything?

This just in from Prof. Maria Frawley: the hilarious-acerbic poem about class called "Did I Miss Anything?" by Canadian poet Tom Wayman.

Read the poem online here. And there is a fabulous "FAQ" with the poet about his poem at Canadian Poetry Online, where, among other things, Wayman reflects on why his poem has hit such a nerve with teachers.

Maria reports that a colleague is thinking of writing a companion piece, "What Do I Need to Get an A?" Any other proposals? Student ripostes?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Meet Howard Jacobson: February 11 at 4 p.m.

Last December, the English Department gave out 200 copies of Kalooki Nights, the challenging, sprawling, inspired, and ambitious 2006 novel by English writer Howard Jacobson, this year's British Council UK Writer in Residence. Jacobson is a novelist, broadcaster, and journalist; London's Independent, which publishes his weekly column, calls him an "acerbic cultural critic ... known for his ebullient wit as well as his unique take on the Jewish experience in Britain."

The English department is thrilled to have Howard with us for the month of February. And we want to celebrate with a BIG READ EVENT. Mark your calendars now for Thursday, February 11, 4-6 p.m. We'll be gathering in Rome 771, the English Department conference room, for an afternoon of lively give-and-take with Harold and light refreshments. You don't need to have completed Kalooki Nights to attend.

For those who snagged Kalooki Nights (and even for those of you who didn't), this will be an opportunity to meet Jacobson in an intimate setting. Perhaps you can even get him to show you the rules of kalooki, a variation of the card game rummy.

Kalooki Nights is narrated retrospectively by Max Glickman, an English-Jewish cartoonist and author of the book Five Thousand Years of Bitterness, a graphic novel (though Max wouldn't call it that) of Jewish persecution. Max is obsessed with all forms of Jew-phobia and anti-Semitism. He ponders what makes Jews Jews: Is it a history of shared victimhood? Is it a history of collective survival despite suffering? Does Jewish identity reside in Jewish practice or belief? Or something else? How do Jews negotiate a sense of "Jewishness" through their relations both with Jews and with non-Jews?

Max is particularly obsessed with the understanding the heinous crime committed by his childhood friend, Manny. In fact, he is drawn to Manny not only because of his transgressions but because for the secular Manny, Max, an observant Jew, is a kind of despised and desired Jewish "other." This is a novel that explores Jewish identity through the twinned lenses of Jewish self-infatuation and Jewish self-loathing. It also treads on taboo ground by probing antisemitism in post-Shoah Britain.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Writing Her Way to Victory: Samantha Barry's Research on Victory Gardens

Gardening. What does the word mean to you? Perhaps new blossoms every spring or dirt underneath your fingernails. For most, the hobby of gardening is just that, a hobby. Maybe every so often a gardener will introduce home-grown vegetables into a family dinner, but mostly it's a personal activity. Gardening as a food movement? Now, that's another story, and a story that recent GW graduate Samantha Barry has found herself enamored of in the past year.

It all started with a simple discussion about Barry's future with English Professor Gayle Wald. The two sat down and talked about everything from internships to graduate school, but it was not until Wald mentioned sustainable farming internships that Barry became interested. After reading an article by Michael Pollan, "Farmer in Chief," which discusses the positive influence a national garden could have, like the one the Obamas tend, Barry was fully committed. "I loved the idea, and hoped for some way to carry out the advancement of food gardens on a nationwide scale," she said. "When the Luther Rice and George Gamow Research Fellowship applications came up, I knew I wanted to research this movement, past and present. It gave me a chance to put my English major research skills to use in a politicized context."

Barry was awarded the Luther Rice Research Grant to research and trace the history of the victory garden. The original victory garden was a staple of WWII, when gardens were intended to allow Americans to feed themselves and send more food overseas. However, just because WWII ended did not mean the victory garden ended; only the reasoning behind it did. Barry said, "People consider the 'victory' in today's victory gardens in the framework of 'battles' against obesity, pesticide use, tightening family budgets, and the environmentally hazardous food mile." This is what Barry is really interested in, how the victory garden is still significant today. She hopes to find, "The many justifications for the reemergence of the victory garden movement at the present time, as well as examine the rhetoric that enabled the victory garden to survive throughout the 20th and into the 21st century," said Barry.

Barry starting researching this past summer and soon realized just how gigantic and fascinating a topic such as this was. "The war garden, liberty garden, recession garden - the politicized American food garden is somewhat of a shape-shifter, adapting to contemporary trends and crises," she said. Some of her most basic sources are news articles from contemporary sources as well as ProQuest Historal Newspapers. Of course, she found local libraries essential, unearthing information in both Gelman Library and the Library of Congress. Even a medical research database, PubMed was useful in procuring information about the potential healthy effects of gardening.

Not all of Barry's research was in the library system though. "I interviewed a gardening historian, an agricultural economist, a modern-day victory garden activist, and even gardening radio and TV hosts," she said. "I had the most fun interviewing Paul James, 'The Gardener Guy' from HGTV, whose show I had watched since childhood." Just as most of her research was easily accessibly, so Barry had no problem reaching out to these specialists, who were all eager to discuss what gardening could do for America.

So after a basic meeting with a professor turned into a full blown research project, what is Barry to do next? At first she hoped to write a book. "That project is just as daunting as it sounds, so I'm distilling much of my present work into article form, hopefully for publication," she said. Barry sees her future in more than just gardening and is currently applying to several English Ph.D programs for next fall. She said, "My focus, if accepted, will be on relationships between people and their physical environments within U.S. Latina/o literature."

No matter where Barry ends up it is clear she will have an exciting future. For now though, she does have one short term goal. "I also hope to become more personally involved in the victory garden movement with the planting of my own food garden this spring," she said. "And with money left over from my fellowship fund, I hope to somehow facilitate the planting of more food gardens in Washington, D.C., perhaps through an existing D.C. nonprofit." We applaud her work and look forward to seeing gardens around DC!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Special Summer Course in York

Medieval Drama in Early England
(ENG 172.60)
The course examines early English drama through the lens of cultural adaptation and will culminate with a trip to York, England to watch a modern production of medieval mystery plays.

Most of us have had some encounter with early English drama through the works of Shakespeare. Medieval drama, in comparison, is relatively unknown, rarely adapted or performed on contemporary stages. Part of this has to do with theater history: until very recently, the history of early English drama could be summarized as an attempt to explain the emergence of Shakespeare and his stage. Recent scholarship, however, argues that the very thing that previously made these texts seem so challenging and unformed is that which makes them so fascinating: the cultures that produced them, the places where they were staged, even the language they are written in are all in the process of becoming...something new. These are texts in formation. As such, they reveal surprising knowledge about the cultures that produced them and those that seek to adapt them. Our course will culminate with a short trip abroad to explore one such production: the 2010 York mystery cycle.
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The 2010 York mystery cycle thus offers a rare opportunity for students to examine medieval play texts within a modern performance venue; during our week abroad, we will examine medieval religion and theater history in a variety of settings, including the streets of York. We will fly into Edinburgh, Scotland for two days, spend two days touring abbeys and moors of North England (Whitby Abbey & Rieveleux Abbey), and then spend three days in York, exploring the medieval city, meeting with a guild that is modernizing one of the plays, attending a conference on them, and watching the production. As we shall see, medieval dramatic adaptation has much to teach us about the relationship between plays and playing, both then and now.

Informational meetings: Wednesday, January 27th and Thursday, February 25th

Application Deadline: March 1, 2010
On Campus Dates: May 17-June 26 (Tues & Thurs, 6:10-8:20pm)
Overseas Dates: July 3-13

For more information, visit

Or contact: Holly Dugan (, Assistant Professor of English at GWU

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Blogging from Jewish Literature Live


The blog has been going through a lot of changes lately, but one part (or person) of it remains the same. Tess Malone, your trusty Communications Liaison Intern, is still here. I am eager to spend another semester interviewing your favorite professors and attending exciting events on campus and throughout DC. However, even I cannot resist the forces of change. Besides my usual updates on happenings of our ever amazing faculty and students, I will be blogging personally about one of the department's most unique courses, Jewish Literature Live.

Thanks to the generosity of alumnus David Bruce Smith, about 20 students get to read contemporary Jewish literature and then actually meet the authors. Taught by the wonderful Faye Moskowitz, the course is like no other. Even if you are not part of the course, you can still benefit from it. I will be blogging specifically about JLL: our readings, our meetings with the authors,and author readings. Despite how I seem to have a history of embarrassing myself in front of authors (Michael Chabon has been victim to two of my ridiculous questions at book signings at GW), I look forward to the class and posting about it.

With this course, as well as two other great English courses, I will be around the department a lot. Now that you know what I look like, feel free to say hi. I do not bite, although the puppy in this photo might. He is an American Bulldog named Gatsby (yet another testament to how nerdy I am). Looking forward to blogging again!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Children of the Sea"

As I write, the news coming out of Haiti is unutterably sad. This small island nation, despite its proud history, has been battered again and again by disasters both natural and man-made. No doubt the poverty of Haiti is one reason the earthquake that struck near the capital, Port-au-Prince, has taken and will take such an enormous human toll.

Two years running now (I am taking a hiaitus this academic year), I have inaugurated my ENGL 40W class, Literature of the Americas, with a short story by Edwidge Danticat, our most famous Haitian-American writer. Danticat, the recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Fellow award (the prestigious prize also shared by new English department hire Edward P. Jones), was born in Haiti and lived there until age 12, after which she moved to the United States. Danticat's personal experience of immigration--and of the attendant gains and losses of transplantation to a new country and culture--energizes all of her writing. She has published short stories, novels, and non-fiction, including Brother, I'm Dying, which won a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. I think of her 1998 novel The Farming of Bones, about the 1937 massacre of Haitians working in the Dominican Republic, as her best work to date.

But it's to Krik? Krak!, her collection of short stories, that I turn in ENGL 40W--specifically to that book's opening story, "Children of the Sea." The story is epistolary in form: that is, told through a series of (imagined) letters, in this case between two young lovers separated by political violence during the brutal regime of "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The female narrator writes from her village, which has been terrorized by the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalier's personal paramilitary force. Her lover, an outspoken critic of the government, is aboard a rickety boat, in an ill-fated attempt to cross the strip of Atlantic Ocean that separates Haiti from the United States.

The poignancy of the story lies in the fact that we, as readers, are privy to letters that will never be delivered. The young woman writes without knowing where to send her letters; the young man's letters (his journal) ultimately sink to the bottom of the ocean, a place which also contains the remains of slave ships of an earlier era. In class, I use this story to introduce themes of diaspora, transnationalism, and "the Americas." I argue that this is a story about missed communications and messages that cannot ever be delivered. It is about the lacunae between what is sent and what can ever be received. And yet it is also about the necessity of storytelling. Writing is an endlessly futile enterprise in "Children of the Sea," but it is also a source of hope and salvation. Tonight I am thinking about my Literature of the Americas students, and Danticat, and Haiti.

Update 12:45 p.m. 1/14/10. Here is a list of donation options suggested by President Knapp, in his statement today to the GWU Community.

Celebrating the New Semester With New Publications

While the blog took a hiatus over Winter Break, that did not mean those affiliated with the GW English Department also took time off. Instead our faculty and students started off 2010 with three new publications!

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, a former Ph.D student, just published her work of historical fiction, Wench.
Undergraduate Tarek Al-Hariri's work was featured in the poetry anthology, The Poetics Noire: Volume 1
Ramola D, a creative writing professor, just published a collection of her short stories Temporary Lives.

Ph.D student Tarek Al-Hayder published his first novel Helat Al-Abeed (Slave District) in 2009.

Congratulations again! 2010 will be a great year.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Full Moon on K Street: A New Anthology With Contributors from the Department

This new anthology celebrates DC and showcases several GW faculty members. Here is the official press release:

Plan B Press proudly announces the publication of the new anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. Featuring over one hundred contemporary poems, the book captures DC's unique sense of place, from monuments to parks, from lawyers to bus stations, from go-go music to chili half-smokes.

All poems were written between 1950 and the present, by past and current residents of the city. Edited by Kim Roberts, a former visiting poet at George Washington University and the publisher of the acclaimed online journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly, this anthology captures the city's many moods: celebratory, angry, and fiercely political.

Contributors include several people currently and formerly associated with GW English, including: David McAleavey, Daniel Gutstein, Christina Daub, and Ramola D.

For more information, see:

Monday, January 4, 2010

Welcome from the New Chair

No, that's not me. That's the guy who played the Maytag Repairman on TV. More about that later.

It's a pleasure to have been handed the keys to this blog from Jeffrey Cohen, our Department's Chair Emeritus (a title I have just now invented and summarily bestowed). To be honest, it's also a bit daunting. I am a writer and a talker, but not--until now--a blogger.

So I'm going to fall back on a skill I have honed in nearly 15 years of office hours: giving advice to English majors. I can't tell you whether you should go to law school (this question comes up rather frequently), and I can't tell you whether Course X or Course Y will be life-changing (although I'll have my hunches). But I can offer the following nuggets. Some of them are things I wish I knew when I was an English major.

* Get to know your professors. You're probably too young to remember this advertisement for Maytag appliances, featuring the repairman who is "the loneliest guy in town," but if you ask your professors, they'll agree that students usually don't stop by if something isn't broken. Where your ongoing education is concerned, your professors are your most important resources outside of the texts you are reading. Stop by to introduce yourself. Tell them what interests you and what you like about the class. Tell them what you do when you're not in class. Keep in touch after the class has ended.

* Get to know your classmates. I'm always surprised that my students don't know each other, or don't know each other at all outside of a few desultory conversations in the classroom. Your classmates are, for the most part, fabulous. They are also keenly interested in many of the things that interest you.

* Take classes with professors who interest you. Don't worry that the topic doesn't immediately grab you; in most instances, a professor who engages you can make any material come alive. Like-minded friends can also direct you to the professors they find challenging and interesting in the classroom.

* Go outside your comfort zone. Our former chair is a medievalist. I am not. That said, in college I opted to take a course in Old English, in which we translated (into modern English) the poem "The Dream of the Rood." This task terrified me, in large part because most of the students in the class were Ph.D. candidates specializing in medieval literature. At one point, I stopped by the professor's office hours and confessed that I didn't think I could keep up with people who already knew so much more than I. He encouraged me to stay. It ended up being one of the most memorable courses I ever took.

* Pursue at least one opportunity unique to GWU English. Here is a sampling of things we're doing this semester. We have Professor Faye Moskowitz's amazing Jewish Literature Live. You can take a one-credit course with our British Council Writer in Residence, who this spring is Howard Jacobson. Check out our class in the History of the Book at the Folger Library. Consider English Honors.

* Visit the new Chair. My office is open to everyone, including undergraduates. I'd love to hear your ideas for how we can enhance your experience as an English major. Please make sure I'm not the "loneliest gal in town."