Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Save the Dates

October and early November are chock-a-block with English department or English-affiliated programming. Mark your calendars now for these upcoming events.

October 4: E. Patrick Johnson

The Northwestern University Professor and performer E. Patrick Johnson visits GW during the run of his critically acclaimed one-man show "Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South" at Arlington's Signature Theater. He will discuss the questions raised by his show in a presentation on October 4 at 2 pm at the Multicultural Student Services Center, 2127 G Street. Look forward to a conversation that draws a diverse crowd. Co-sponsored by Africana Studies, the MSSC, and other GW units.

Johnson's books include the award-winning Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Duke UP). You can see him discuss "Sweet Tea" here.

Johnson last visited GWU as a guest of Prof. Wald's "Post-Soul Black Literature and Culture" course in 2007, when he was workshopping an early version of "Sweat Tea." He also consulted with faculty participants in CCAS's Performance Studies Seminar.

October 10: Jewish Women Who Rock

Did you know that The New Yorker's first pop music critic was Ellen Willis, a Jewish feminist? That Genya Raven, aka Goldie Zekovitz, was the lead singer of an all-female band that toured with the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Kinks? That some of the original Riot Grrrls were Jewish?

On October 10 at 7 p.m. in Phillips 411, join a lively exchange about gender, Jewish identity, and rock & pop music featuring Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (2010), and Nona Willis Aronowitz, editor of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011). We'll discuss the roles Jewish girls and women have played in pop music history and how Jewish identities are enacted (or not?) by women today. Heard of the Shondes, the Brooklyn-based indie-punk band with Jewish influences and radical politics? You will after this event.

This is not your mother's "Hava Nagila." Co-sponsored by English, Judaic Studies, GW Hillel, Jewish Literature Live, the Women's Leadership Program, Music, and Women's Studies.

October 20: USC Prof. Karen Tongson 

Just announced. Karen Tongson, Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, will be presenting a talk on Thursday, October 20 at 2 p.m. in Rome 771 titled "Finding the Cloverleaf in Queer Cultural Studies." Tongson's hotly anticipated book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, just came out from New York University Press. Here's what the press has to say about the book:
What queer lives, loves and possibilities teem within suburbia’s little boxes? Moving beyond the imbedded urban/rural binary, Relocations offers the first major queer cultural study of sexuality, race and representation in the suburbs. Focusing on the region humorists have referred to as “Lesser Los Angeles”—a global prototype for sprawl—Karen Tongson weaves through suburbia’s “nowhere”spaces to survey our spatial imaginaries: the aesthetic, creative and popular materials of the new suburbia.

November 3-4: Composing Disability: Writing, Communication, Culture

GW English Prof. Robert McRuer, a leader in the field of disability studies, is one of the organizers of a two-day symposium that considers some of the ways that disability studies and disability culture are transforming higher education and assesses how academic spaces and programs might be generated to respond to that transformation. The exciting keynote speakers for this groundbreaking GW event include Michael Davidson (Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body), Terry Galloway, performer and author of Mean Little Deaf Queer, and Merri Lisa Johnson (Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality).

“Composing Disability” brings together Disability and Deaf Studies, Writing Studies, Education, and Global Cultural Studies for spirited, collegial dialogue, about the production of disability culture, disability writing, and disability representation in and beyond academia today. The program is scheduled to begin on Thursday, November 3 at 1 pm and will run through Friday, November 4 at 3:30 pm. Look here for the full program.

November 4-5: Korean Shakespeare Coming to GWU

As part of Staging Korea: Korean Theatre in Search of New Aesthetics, a day-long event celebrating the beauty of Korean performance traditions, scholars and directors will discuss the internationalization of Korean theatre.

This year's highlight is the visit of Master Oh Tae Suk from Seoul and the screening of the film of his production, The Tempest, which won the Herald Angel’s Award at the 2011 Edinburgh International Arts Festival. The screening is on November 4 at 4 p.m.; the audience will have an opportunity to interact with the director at a presentation on November 5. Both events at the Harry Harding Auditorium, 1957 E Street. The events are part of this year's Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities.
New GW English Prof. Alexa Huang recently discussed the show in the context of global Shakespeare in guest appearances on the BBC and at a lecture in Edinburgh. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

English major Patrick Rochelle in the Hatchet

English major Patrick Rochelle has a nice opinion piece in the most recent GW Hatchet. Rochelle urges the University not to shortchange the humanities, and cites last week's Toni Morrison events as a notable celebration of the humanities in general and literature in particular.

As Rochelle notes, Morrison referred to reading a mode of discovery--not just of the self but the world outside the self. She recalled reading an adult novel lying around her Lorain, Ohio home and enjoying it while not really understanding a word. (Her mother belonged to a book club, and the book delved into psycho-sexual themes.) Morrison implied that this early appetite for reading and curiosity about language were key to her development as a writer. Her advice to kids? "Read anything and everything."

I wonder if readers of this blog can remember "forbidden" books they read in childhood? I gobbled up novels by Pearl Buck and Leon Uris, and read Erica Jong's Fear of Flying before I had any idea what it was about. (The cover offered a hint, but beyond that I was clueless.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dinner with Toni

English major Joe Mancinik with Prof. Toni Morrison
Prior to her appearance at Lisner Auditorium Wednesday night, our English Department blogger Joe Mancinik, along with a few other lucky English majors, sat down for a dinner and conversation with legendary writer, teacher, and intellectual Toni Morrison. This piece is about the experience.

She speaks softly, lyrically, pleasant tongue-clicks. Grace embodied, Have you ever been in the presence of grace? That most rare category of grace that stems from intelligence. The food, the action of chewing, the aroma of spiced shrimp, her metrical intonation, hypnotic and gentle, lulling her dinner audience into a pleasant catalepsy. Something about her voice has a delectable quality that the tongue-clicks and light, mellifluous way she enunciates makes the catered food that much better.

Inspiration, she is asked, where does it come from? "Questions," she says softly, "I have questions about a subject or a feeling that leads me to write." Like love, and its manifestations, which led her to write many of her novels, she says. A mother's love, as in Beloved, or love of God, as in Paradise. When discussing her process as a writer she whispers, as we all lean in (no one is eating though our plates are still full): "Write through the bad stuff." And then she chuckles.

Of course, the opportunity to really speak to Toni Morrison, to know her, is too brief in such an occasion. The supernumeraries surround her as the dinner is held behind the stage in Lisner Auditorium. She has to prepare for the event that has brought her here in the first place: a reading and remarks she will deliver to a large appreciative audience of GW students, faculty, and members of the community. Professor Morrison has had a full day--just prior to our dinner she had visited the White House--and her son lingers nearby, a solicitous and worried expression on his face. There is love right there, always near her.

Prof. Morrison's career represents, to a certain extent, triumph and vindication over oppressive forces. I cannot help but contrast that with the historical memory of my own Southern ancestors, to some of whom such a career connotes humiliation, the unraveling of not only a hierarchy but of an image, a way of seeing oneself, which Prof. Morrison points towards in her critical essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination.

Prof. Morrison warns against nostalgia, and it is true that it does distract. Anything further risks solipsism. I remain grateful for such opportunities as dinner with Toni Morrison, as staged as such things necessarily are, given to me by this university, to open my eyes and my heart to others, to look past all of the ugliness, to grasp a new beauty that lies within each of us and within myself, a new knowledge, a new hope and perhaps, finally, some reckoning.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Toni Morrison Packs Lisner Hall

PhD student Elizabeth Pittman greets Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison at the F Street House
Yesterday's Toni Morrison events--the "Bench by the Road" dedication ceremony; the reception at Pres. Knapp's F Street Residence; the dinner for 20 GW undergraduates (including more than a dozen English majors); the wonderful presentation Morrison gave to a packed house at Lisner Auditorium--were a wonderful tribute to one of our greatest living writers.

We'll have more here soon from senior Joe Mancinik about the dinner with Morrison (he was among the lucky group to dine with her before her 8 p.m. presentation). For now, check out The Hatchet's nice video report here.

For now, thanks to everyone who made this event possible, especially English Prof. Evelyn Schreiber and her husband Scott Schreiber, who generously donated the memorial bench in front of Lisner.

Several events inspired by Morrison's visit are ongoing or forthcoming. They include an exhibit of Morrison's works and a separate exhibit of the black history of Foggy Bottom (both at Gelman Library), a public screening of the film version of her novel Beloved, and walking tours of the Black Heritage trail of Foggy Bottom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Giving a 9/11 Speech

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, GW English student blogger and military veteran Joe Mancinik delivered some remarks for a ceremony on the Foggy Bottom campus of the George Washington University. This piece is about his experience.

Before I knew it I had volunteered. Again. The first time I had volunteered for something I was working on a roof in the Florida Panhandle. The combination of humidity, hot tar, and noxious fumes--and the prospect of enduring conditions like that for the rest of my life-- drove me into that recruiters' office faster than my sense of patriotic duty ever would. And, I reflected, after sealing my fate (the second time), it was this choice, made in the godawful Southern heat--the kind of heat that makes your clothes stick to your body so that you itch all over when you dry off-- that had given me this opportunity, and this made me feel guilt--raw, introspective stuff--because I knew that I did not deserve it.

I had spent my military service on a ship, I reflected; or in the States. Any time the hint of an "opportunity" to go to Iraq or Afghanistan presented itself I ran the other direction. The truth is, I was terrified. Maybe I wouldn't be killed, but I might lose a leg or an arm, or part of an arm, I reasoned. And I also felt a deep sense that, in this case, the authorities were deeply mistaken. And, after all, if you can't trust your command apparatus, what good is an oath to it? That's how I justified it. And that kind of rational thinking is, if not discouraged, in the military, at least it carries with it a corresponding measure of guilt--just for thinking about it.

Ironically it was in the military that I first lost all faith in the concept of authority. One of my favorite sources of wisdom, H.L. Mencken, once said of my dilemma: "The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom."

This was the first break I had with many of my younger college peers, who may still have some hope that their parents and role models have some better notion for the trajectory of their lives. My father wanted me to sell insurance, like he had, and later, to remain in the Navy, where I could look forward to working long hours for supercilious superiors with the distinction of rank to justify their arrogance--forever remaining a nomad while moving from place to place.

My colleagues in the military looked askance at me (the ones who cared) when I announced my decision to separate and go to college. Perhaps some of them may have been envious, feeling trapped themselves. I was taking a big risk. In the military I was assured a regular paycheck and health benefits. I would be taking a massive pay cut (not so massive really) to do something as abstract as learn and gain knowledge. I didn't hold out much hope for a better job because I was too inured to disappointment by then.

So, here I am, agreeing to speak about my military service, which I regretted to a certain extent, and on a day like September 11, with the knowledge that so many poor kids from small towns, like myself, had gone to Iraq and Afghanistan in defense of ideals too abstract to stand the test of experience, to be maimed or killed, or to maim or kill, in defense of these abstractions; and here I was going to give a speech, in which I would have to speak glowingly of these abstractions.

Well I would have to back out, I now saw. Someone else, someone with combat experience, would have to speak--to lie about why they joined the military, that it was because of the attacks on 9/11, and not because of their zeal for their father's or uncle's or brother's approval, that it was due to their love of their government and a flag, striped by abstractions.

This made me realize that if I didn't give the speech, honestly, no one else would be capable of giving it as honestly as I. Now I knew my purpose: to give an honest speech, to expose the lie of patriotism and honor, and to educate these students still suffering from the delusion of compunction and rightness in authority. So I went to work, furiously pounding the keys, whipsawing the pen over the notepad. Exposed would be the fallacies of 9/11: the surveillance, the bag searches, shoe removal, foreign military expeditions; all of it would be brought into the light by my speech. Gritting my teeth I channeled all of my frustration at having to throw out expensive lighters, shaving cream, and hair gel. Rolling up my sleeves I exacted retribution on all of the arrogant officers telling me to shave or come to work on time. The more truth I produced the less guilty I felt about being a coward and avoiding the combat zone. My zeal rode the crest of a divine mandate to expose all of the heresies and madness resulting from 9/11.

Something told me that I should show a draft of my speech to a friend, with the noble intention of sharing these insights and illuminating them. My friend complimented me on my passion, but, well, did I need to dwell so much on the terrorism-security complex or the evil defense contractors in this passage here? This was not exactly the response I was expecting; after all, what the hell did he know? He wasn't in the military, like me. I did admit that, maybe I didn't, no. So I went off to show it to another friend and he said nearly the same thing. But what did both of them know? They weren't writers, like me. Quite deflated, however, I began to doubt my resolve to be a crusader for truth.

Soon after I was sitting somewhere and I wrote something about my guilt at never really sacrificing anything in the military (at least nothing besides a few girlfriends and a lot of sleep). The words started flowing. It was then that I realized that the only way to tell some measure of truth was by talking about my own experience. On a day when so many speeches would be dealing with the same conceits, this was my experience, solely mine. I was the one with the regrets and memories of funny jokes the other guys used to tell during long nights on watch, that the faces in my mind were their faces. The faces of people (we were just kids) who had lived with me through a formative time in their lives with the same regrets, who made the same mistakes, and had spent months and years away from their girlfriends, wives, husbands, children, and families, like me. My purpose now, I finally understood, was to write a speech for them.

As the day of the speech bore down on me (it's not hard to anticipate the date 9/11 approaching on the calendar), I began feeling that gnawing sense of guilt in my gut again. I was unworthy! This was the tenth anniversary of September 11. Jesus, what if someone in the audience had a friend, or, god forbid, a parent or sibling killed in the attacks? Would they slap me in the face afterwards and call me a hypocrite? Would someone who served in Iraq spit in my face?

The day finally arrived, which was also the "Freshman Day of Service" for the university. I boarded a bus filled with freshmen headed to the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Silver Spring. Someone called me "sir." I realized that these kids were eight-year-olds in 2001. They sang songs and laughed and flirted with each other. Their simple love of life and levity on such a somber occasion was one of those ironies that still make life beautiful and worth living to me. Those misguided young men who had crashed airliners into buildings could never take away such beauty.

The evening was warm and pleasant as I surveyed the throng of people gathered on the University Yard for the vigil. Suddenly the sight of the freshman processing down 21st street holding lighted candles caught the crowd's attention--a reminder of the solemnity of the occasion. The president of the university, Steven Knapp, introduced me and called me to the podium. The speech seemed to take forever but came off pretty well. The other speakers complimented me when we had all come down from the rostrum. What moved me most, however, was the unforeseen occurrence of many in the crowd coming up to shake my hand afterwards. One of them told me he also had come to college later than usual (I am thirty-one). The experience was surreal, one of those moments that give color to a memory.

The next morning I opened the student newspaper expecting to find a full transcript of the speech, my picture on the front page, and two editorials: one of which praising my words, and the other vilifying them. Of course, no such thing occurred. There was, however, an elegant one-line summation of the speech (naturally misquoted). My girlfriend reminded me that the speech wasn't about me, but about the event. Wisdom that I grudgingly had to accept. (She is very much wiser than myself). There were no ovations when I walked into my classes on Monday, either.

So I'm forced to make sense of the experience on my own (which is almost always the case in life, of course). I was honored to be given the opportunity to speak but still wonder whether I'll ever forgive myself. Maybe I'll just be one of those old men that wears a Navy hat around the neighborhood, too busy taking care of grandchildren to give it much thought.

Yossarian, the protagonist in "Catch-22," ascribes his prowess as a bombardier to his inordinate cowardice. Tim O'Brien writes in "The Things They Carried" that his unwillingness to go to Canada to avoid deployment to Vietnam was an act of cowardice. He was too afraid in the end, he wrote, to risk the opprobrium of his community.

I suppose I can take some small measure of comfort from these two great authors' words, but I don't really. I just hope that if the time comes when I have sons that I guard against speaking too glowingly or nostalgically about my military career. Of course I am assaulted constantly by such nostalgia, which whispers to me that somewhere there is a ship waiting for me, riding high in its moorings, banners waving in the salt air, to whisk me away, to another time, to other sentiments, back to my youth and innocence.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Announcing the EGSA Blog

The 2011-2012 English Graduate Student Association announces the arrival of the GW EGSA Blog!
Here is a report by graduate student Tawnya Ravy:
In an effort to stay in touch with English graduate students and to offer regular updates on events, we decided to create this blog. We see it as an exciting opportunity to encourage English graduate students to take an active role in the academic, professional, and social events offered by the department, the individual programs, and by EGSA. We also envision it as a place where current graduate students can exchange ideas, seek advice, or offer suggestions for the Association via the Forum function.
With teaching, studying, writing, and TA duties, we realize how difficult it is to foster a sense of community in a graduate program. We would like to change this by using the blog to encourage study breaks, form study groups, organize happy hours, access the unique opportunities for fun and development in D.C., support department events, and offer inspiration, news, and comedy to help students through the challenging years of graduate school.
Already you can find information on the upcoming National Book Festival this weekend in DC as well as the upcoming Plan Your M.A. Workshop. In addition, we are looking to organize reading groups to support some of the upcoming academic events including the two-day MEMSI event on Monster Theory and the upcoming Composing Disability event. Please visit the GW EGSA Blog to indicate your interest in participating in these events/groups or email You are also encouraged to “Like” us at the GW EGSA Facebook page where you will receive event invitations and updates.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tim Johnston, Master Craftsman

Looking into Tim Johnston's smoky gray eyes, one finds no presumption lurking there. His answers are direct, and he pauses for new questions; his voice is clear and his manner is pleasant. Johnston is the new Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Residence Fellow.

Profiling a writer is unlike straight biography for, say, a firefighter. There's the added wrinkle of a body of writing to think about. There are many approaches to take in profiling a writer. One approach, the one most writers are critical of, is the biographical approach: understanding the figure behind the page through the subject's experiences--without the page. Another approach is to open up the writer's life through the work he or she produces. The writer would probably prefer he or she was never opened up in the first place, but that is the tension inherent in a biography--between the biographer trying to reveal, and the subject trying to abstract. The latter approach is the most arduous.

A writer once said that all writing is about a lack. Ernest Hemingway put this into practice the best, using his "iceberg" approach to writing, by revealing only what was starkly visible in the narrative and hinting at the larger, turbulent forces roiling the surface of the water; the effects of which we can all see but are unable to discern. Hemingway kept his prose tight and free from ornament. A seemingly innocuous passage from Tim Johnston's short story "Two Years", an exchange between the protagonist Grant and the waitress Maria, demonstrates his dexterity with this technique:

She said, 'I'm sorry, I'm overstepping.'
'No, you're not.'
'I'm taking advantage of the circumstances.'
'Which circumstances?'
'She glanced at him, and looked back to the road.'

And a few paragraphs further, in response to Maria's question about his amputated fingers:

[Grant] said, 'No. Well there was a saw, but it wasn't a work accident. It was a drinking accident.'
'I used to be a drinker.'
'The turnoff's coming up.'
'I know. But thanks.'

These are some of the most tense moments in the narrative but Johnston deftly withholds as much as possible, dangling the characters' histories over the readers' heads like a sprig of mistletoe held by someone you are burning to kiss, who is also being a little too glib about it. That's the substrate of narrative, the sleight of hand, the thing that divides the journeyman writer from the apprentice, which Johnston has found.

"As I've gotten older and more confident," he says of his technique, "and just plain better as a writer of fiction, my fiction has become less and less autobiographical on the surface." Johnston admits to having a visceral reaction to seeing himself lurking at the edge of his writing. "I get kind of nauseated whenever I feel myself writing about a character who resembles myself too closely," he says, "and the moment that happens I will jettison the voice, or the character, or else change him or his story so dramatically as to make him alien and interesting to me."

Johnston spent many years as a carpenter, so his craftsmanship with words should come as no surprise to the reader. "Like writing, carpentry is about building," he says. "About taking care, about taking raw materials and making things at once beautiful and solid. You learn an appreciation for grain, for the sharpness of tools and for the keenness of your eye and your fingertips."

His interest is in teaching fiction and fiction writing. Part of his responsibilities as the Jenny McKean Moore fellow is teaching a workshop for students and for local residents. The syllabus for his workshop reads like a recipe for a good peach pie, as precise as a work manual: "We begin with the agreement that reading--and understanding--great fiction is an educational bedrock for anyone who wishes to create it...We will be frankly but humanely honest, impassioned with compassion, aware that the time and care we put into the stories of our peers is not only the lifeblood of the workshop, but will also be generously repaid in kind."

Johnston's collection of short stories, Irish Girl, won the 2009 Katherine Ann Porter Prize in Short Fiction. The eponymous story in the collection garnered him the O. Henry Prize in 2002. Author David Sedaris listed the collection as one of his favorite reads that year and promoted the book on his U.S. tour, including Irish Girl in his anthology of favorite stories Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Johnston wrote a humorous article about the experience for last May entitled "When You Are Engulfed by David Sedaris." (It's worth a read)

Last night (September 14), Johnston read a portion of his upcoming novel The Next Hour as part of the Jenny McKean Moore series to a small crowd of bibliophiles and creative writing geeks in the School of Media and Public Affairs. The title of the novel, Johnston said, comes from an Arthur Schopenhauer quote: "Every possession and every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour." I suspect that he feels the same about his own fame--a trait that is essential to modesty.

The inevitable question about motivation Johnston answers with verve and humility, right down to the last rivet, the last substance. "Great writing drives me," says Johnston. "Great stories and novels. Sentences I never want to forget. I'm driven by the deep and incomparable sense of well-being and rightness that fills me when I am working intensely on some story, or novel, or sentence."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It's Official: The Ephemeral History of Perfume is Out!

English Dept. Secretary Linda Terry, Assistant Prof. Holly Dugan, and Office Manager Constance Kibler.

It's official! Prof. Holly Dugan's The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England is out from The Johns Hopkins University Press! University of Michigan Prof. Michael Schoenfeldt calls it "[a] wonderful piece of work that will engage a wide readership. The subject of scent is central to so many attitudes and opinions in early modern culture, and Dugan does a splendid job of reminding us of its importance to canonical and noncanonical works. I know of nothing quite like this book."

Congratulations to Holly!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tickets to an Intimate Dinner with Toni Morrison on Sept. 21

By special arrangement with the folks organizing Toni Morrison's upcoming campus visit (thank you, Prof. Evelyn Schreiber!), the English department has obtained several seats for undergraduates to attend a dinner with Prof. Morrison before her talk at Lisner Auditorium on Monday 9/21 at 8 p.m. This dinner is by invitation only and is for fewer than 20 students, so it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend time with one of our greatest living writers.

Undergraduate English majors who would like to have dinner with Prof. Morrison should email, by tonight (Monday 9/12) at midnight, a "tweet" to Prof. Wald. That is to say, email Prof. Wald an explanation in 140 characters or fewer of why you want to have dinner with Toni Morrison.

Profs. Schreiber and Wald will judge the entries and announce the winners of our Dinner with Toni Morrison contest on Tuesday.

Please note that this special invitation is for undergraduate English or English and Creative Writing majors ONLY. Tweets must be received by midnight to be eligibile.

Friday, September 9, 2011

All the World's a Stage: Alexa Huang at GW

There was a tempest of sorts happening outside as I rushed over puddles and clumps of wet leaves to catch one of newly-arrived Alexa Huang's courses entitled "Global Shakespeare." The course title could easily be describing Alexa herself, a native of Taiwan, who first encountered a performance of the Bard's work in Germany--coincidentally, it was a performance of The Tempest--while an exchange student. Even her name is cross-cultural (much of his scholarship focuses on this subject).

Alexa brings to GW years of experience as a Shakespeare scholar, and numerous accolades, including the prestigious MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for her book Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural ExchangeWith her bona fides and experience—she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and a Joint Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies in humanities from Stanford University—why choose Washington, D.C. over, say, London or New York?

“Because the English Department is a smart and collegial community and GW is at a very exciting moment of development under the leadership of the president and provost," says Alexa. "And there is so much going on in Washington, D.C., around Shakespeare." She offers the presence of the Folger Shakespeare Library (with which she has closely collaborated in the past) and three Shakespeare companies as examples. Alexa was also very excited to work with colleagues in the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute.

Along with the Ford Foundation Professor of Humanities Peter Donaldson at MIT, Alexa was the driving force behind Global Shakespeares, a video archive--it is more accurate to call it the video archive--of worldwide Shakespeare performances that scholars, students, and anyone else can use to access Shakespeare around the globe.

“I think of (Global Shakespeare) as a YouTube for Shakespeare lovers,” she says.

I arrive at her class a little late, spilling coffee in the process, but she is too engrossed in a lecture on Julius Caesar to take much notice. She is very tech-saavy, as evidenced by her usage of multimedia in the classroom.

"(Multimedia) is the only way to get the job done when the goal is to teach performance and film analysis and critical thinking," says Alexa. "The paradox of the age of YouTube is that despite the level of creativity and range of possibilities for teaching and learning, when videos and films are used in class, students slip back into the passive mode of viewing. I use multimedia in ways that compel students to engage with the materials in-depth and foster students' writing skills."

One of the ways she accomplishes this is by using VITAL (Video Interaction for Teaching and Learning), a program developed at Columbia and modified at MIT, that allows students to make their own multimedia content by splicing together clips from Global Shakespeare with their own writing about the work. The finished product can then be shown to the class to create a learning community.

A screenshot of VITAL
"On the surface, (VITAL) may look like a variation of such course management websites as Blackboard, or YouTube on steroids, but it is neither," says Alexa. "VITAL offers a video-centric learning experience that fosters excellence in writing. Students get hooked after making their very first clip."

Gabriela Cruz, one of her students, agrees. "(Alexa) has made Shakespeare a little more interesting than usual," she says. "She has made Shakespeare not only clearer but has expanded Shakespeare globally."

Alexa is offering two courses this semester: one is the aforementioned "Global Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Transnational Contexts" and "Shakespeare Today: Shakespeare alive on 21st century stage and screen."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Welcoming Joe Mancinik, the Newest GW English Blogger

Joe when he is not in Foggy Bottom.

Joe Mancinik, the new English Department communications intern, has a philosophy on life, which is as follows: everything that is usual is boring, or eventually becomes boring. 

So everything that is unusual is outside of himself, since every morning he wakes up to himself, or at least very near himself. Therefore he is very interested in unusual things, like crime, deviance, taboo, and other people. This philosophy explains much of his life and peregrinations, including joining the Navy and coming to college a little later than most. 

“I wasn’t ready for college when I was eighteen,” he says, chewing on an apple core. “Immaturity is one explanation, mostly my parents’, but the other is that I had this theory that experience was something more intangible and less occupying and labor-intensive.” He chews a little more on his apple and grants that this theory was somewhat flawed. “But flawed reasoning is the path to wisdom, I think. I mean, it took an apple like this one falling on Newton’s head for him to acquire wisdom, and it took two or three marriages for my parents.”

Also, the senior English and Creative Writing major’s philosophy led him to become the new blogger for the English Department. He sees it as an opportunity to meet unusual people and professors, the latter category of which he views as “definitely satisfying that criteria.” Mancinik has a taste for mordant wit, obviously, and sees humor and irony as the ultimate proof of God’s existence (along with the works of John Cheever and Saul Bellow). “How else could you explain the appeal of Lady Gaga and the Republican Party?” he jokes. (Joe prefers jazz, especially Dexter Gordon and Bill Evans, and Coltrane when he’s feeling more “cerebral.”)

His ambition is to become an educator, writer, thinker, gardener, and humanist. "Anything but business," he says with disgust. "There's nothing more ridiculous to me than paying someone to do something that you're perfectly capable of doing yourself." A quick glance at all of the canning materials, gardening tools, livestock, and analog calculators strewn around his cramped Foggy Bottom apartment will attest to that.  It was difficult, in fact, to nail down exactly what was fantasy or dissimulation to him and what was reality. "All artists lie," says Mancinik. "Just look at Hitchcock (the iconic film director) and his pranks. To them it's more fun. To their spouses it's another matter altogether."

When asked about his military experience Joe quotes Fred Durst, of Limp Bizkit fame: “Being in the Navy was like being in prison.” Though Mancinik is quick to add that his military service gives him access to the GI Bill, which enables him to go to an outstanding private university like GW, relatively free of expense.

Joe is currently researching, in his off-time, the poetic link between William Shakespeare and Tupac Shakur. “Heaven is my judge/ Not I for love and duty/ But only seeming so/ For my peculiar ends// Only God can judge me…nobody else/ All you (expletive deleted) get out my business.” Of this research Mancinik says, “It’s been tedious. It really has. About the only thing that I can really argue convincingly to my professors is that (Shakespeare and Shakur) are dead.” He also likes college football.

Getting deeper, to what drives him, takes a little further investigation. He cites the murders in 2005 of two close friends as a life-changing experience. “That put things into perspective for me,” he says, indicating by his body language that he is being sincere now. 

“Before (the murders) I was pretty content with reading for my own knowledge and avoiding anything too complicated. But when my friend and his wife were killed, I began reevaluating that approach. They were my friends, you know, even when I was an idiot, and I often was. And friendship is real, and intangible, and in a way sort of like the humanities.” Julie, his friend’s wife, was working on a B.A. at the time of her death and Mancinik sees her goal as part of his own.  “I think sometimes,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I hope that my own pursuit of a degree can in some measure fulfill her hopes too.”

Mancinik’s love of language stems from its mystical ability to cause tears to fall, rearrange perspectives, eliminate prejudices, and conquer ignorance. So it is decidedly not something trivial to him. “Language, literature, are about life,” says Mancinik. “About its pettiness and absurdity and joy and wisdom.” He links this belief to his own choice of a major. “What could be more valuable than a course of studies in that?”

- By Joe Mancinik

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Celebrate Washington Writers with Profs. Sten, Mallon - Sept. 13, 4 p.m.

English will celebrate Chris Sten's recent collection on September 13

A lot is going on in the English Department this month. In addition to the just-announced Evening with Toni Morrison, we are thrilled to be celebrating the publication of Prof. Chris Sten's book Literary Capital: A Washington Reader on Tuesday, September 13 from 4-5:30 p.m. in Phillips Hall 411.

Prof. Tom Mallon will read from his acclaimed 2001 historical novel

Prof. Sten will discuss the history of writers on and of Washington, DC and share with us the process of compiling this anthology, the first of its kind. Prof. Tom Mallon, a prizewinning writer whose 2001 novel Two Moons is excerpted in the collection, will also be reading at the event.

Light refreshments will be served. Please come out to support GW English!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

An Evening With Toni Morrison: Please RSVP

President Steven Knapp
students, staff, faculty, alumni and friends

Wednesday, September 21, 2011
8-9 p.m.

Lisner Auditorium
730 H Street, NW
Washington, D.C.

Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison will speak about her life and her work.

The evening will include readings
from Ms. Morrison’s most recent novel, A Mercy and her forthcoming novel.

Register for your complimentary ticket at:

For more information contact 202-994-7129 or