Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Professor Renee Calarco Nominated for a 2013 Helen Hayes Award

GW English extends a hearty congratulations to Professor Renee Calarco, whose play, The Religion Thing, was nominated for a 2013 Helen Hayes Award!  Professor Calarco is nominated in the category of Outstanding New Play or Musical.

Since 1983, the Helen Hayes Awards have recognized professional theater in the Washington, D.C. region.  They are named for the famous actress Helen Hayes, sometimes known as "the First Lady of the American Theatre."  The full list of 2013 nominations can be accessed here.  

In a review of The Religion Thing's premier at Theater J early last year, Ben Demers writes in DC Theatre Scene:

"Faith can bind people together under the banner of common belief, or it can create deep rifts, irreconcilable by way of reason or shared history. In Theater J’s lovingly crafted production of Renee Calarco’s The Religion Thing, a polished cast navigates the playwright’s meditation upon the complex role of faith in relationships, marked by a heady brew of razor sharp humor, repressed secrets, and raw emotion."

The 2013 Helen Hayes Award winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Warner Theater on April 8, 2013.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Louis Bayard Reading: Thursday, January 31st

Louis Bayard will be giving a reading 
Thursday January 31st at 7:30pm in the 
Honors Town House (714 21st St NW).


Bayard teaches Creative Writing here at the George Washington University and is the author of The School of Night, The Black Towers, The Pale Blue Eye, and other critically acclaimed novels.



As a child, Professor Bayard said he learned a great deal from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Today Bayard is a well-known writer of historical thrillers and takes inspiration from David Mitchell who leaves Bayard "in a constant state of awe... He's [,Mitchell's,] taken the historical novel in new directions." Out of curiosity, I asked if teaching has had any influence on Bayard's writing.  Bayard replied,

"I don't know that teaching writing has affected my writing that much -- I keep those compartments pretty separate -- but it has helped me articulate some principles I've always carried around with me.  And, of course, it broadens my experience by putting me in touch with young people, seeing what they're reading and writing, how they approach life, etc.  I spend a lot of my work life dwelling on the past, so my time at GWU gives me a welcome dose of modernity."

It can be difficult to keep different projects separate, so what is his secret?

"I've been a freelance writer for a long time, so I'm used to compartments -- i.e., stopping and starting, working on different things at different times.  I liken it to spinning plates in the air.  As long as the plates keep spinning, everything's fine."





You don't want to miss this event! 
Come get a sneak peek of Louis Bayard's latest work!

Reflections on the GW Digital Humanities Symposium 2013


On January 24-26, GW was the proud host of the university's first Digital Humanities Symposium 


Patty Chu and Peter Feng
After all the excitement, some of the symposium participants spoke about the purpose of the symposium, how they became involved, and what digital technology could mean for the future of multiple fields (such as our own beloved English department).








How did you become involved with the symposium?

Alexa Huang:
(GW English professor and co-organizer of the Digital Humanities Symposium)


When I was hired by GW, I wanted to leverage GW’s unique position in Washington, D.C. to amplify the intellectual energy and vibe around here to turn GW into a center for digital scholarship. This symposium is part of my effort on these fronts.

The digital humanities is an exciting new field that uses digital tools (such as annotations, video interaction, and data mining) to study and teach traditional humanities subjects. The field also uses humanities theories to study digital artifacts and culture. There has been tremendous support from GW Provost Steven Lerman. Before coming to GW, Provost Lerman oversaw MIT’s Center for Educational Computing Initiatives, among many other important projects that advanced the cause of digital research and education.

Initiated by Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) and Dean's Scholars of Shakespeare, the inaugural GW Digital Humanities Symposium, January 24-26, 2013, received widespread and enthusiastic support across many units at GW that ranged from School of Engineering and Applied Science to Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. GW’s new Vice Provost for Online Education and Academic Innovation Paul Schiff Berman gave opening remarks at the event.


What has been your experience with digital technology and the humanities?

(GW English professor and co-organizer of the Digital Humanities Symposium)

Professor Daniel DeWispelare (right)
and Masters student William Quiterio
My experience with digital technology as it relates to the humanities is that for the past two decades it has been both cutting-edge and controversial.  That is to say that there is a constantly growing number of great researchers who are striving to theorize the epistemic shifts the digital revolution has occasioned, who are trying to integrate digital platforms into their research and thinking, and who are using digital tools to tackle new research opportunities that digital humanities itself makes possible, especially those pertaining to globalization and network theory.  At the same time, digital humanities is controversial insofar as it presupposes a certain facility with digital tools and demands that researchers (in some cases) totally rethink what humanistic studies are and do. 

I first became exposed to digital humanities when I was in college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period when there was an especially prescient push to serve new media alongside the traditional, text-based diet that made up a humanistic education. At this time, there were already several robust and relatively well-established databases aggregating journal articles and digitizing primary texts; the blogosphere and social media were just taking shape; and new computing horizons in terms of speed, processing, memory, and hardware were being etched into the sky everyday. 

As a comparison, my large public high school used a card catalogue to index its library and had very few computers that students could access.  And even while I was in college during this tremendous boom, I had professors who did not or could not use email--which would be an incredible rarity today.  The digital world looked very different then, not just visually, but in terms of interactivity.  (If you have never done it, take some time to look at the Internet Archive's Way Back Machine.)

Its looking different is just one tiny window into the way the questions that were asked about the new digital frontier (and the utopias spun around it) were also quite different.  A glance at our symposium's schedule will show just how far digital humanities has come in its ability to pose and answer new questions--everything from linguistic data processing to sophisticated philosophical interrogation of the relationship between the body and machine.  If there is anything to say about my experience with digital humanities, though, it is that it is a field that has generated and continues to generate questions and methods that have yet to be considered, and many more that will be made possible by the work being done today, especially interdisciplinary work, which is also well represented at the GW's inaugural DH Symposium. 

The symposium was initiated by Medieval Studies and the GW Dean's Scholars in Shakespeare, which is an interesting field to interact with technology. How did that come about? How do they interact?


(GW English professor and co-organizer of the Digital Humanities Symposium)

Professor Jonathan Hsy
If you were to ask most people to name fields that incorporate use of digital technologies, most people would probably not think of fields like medieval studies or Shakespeare scholarship. Many of the people associated with the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute work with digital technologies in different ways. Some libraries and other institutions -- such as the British Library and Walters Art Museum -- have digitalized many of their manuscript collections, which means that rare books and other materials are more widely available for researchers and students. I often use digital images of medieval manuscripts (including illustrations of literary texts or other materials) in my teaching as well as my own scholarship. Will Noel, one of our invited speakers, is a librarian who has been very active on Twitter and other social media encouraging institutions to make online images of medieval manuscripts freely accessible to the public via Creative Commons licensing.

Alexa Huang’s "Global Shakespeares" project offers an online archive of performance videos from all over the world and other resources for anyone interested in Shakespeare reception or broader issues of cultural exchange. In short, there are many ways GW faculty and others working in medieval and Renaissance studies engage with digital technologies. For some, it's expanding the availability of materials that are otherwise obscure, rare, or hard to access; for others, it's about creating an archive of materials that allows us to engage with artistic works of the past (such as literary texts and plays) in new ways.

One of the major aims of the Digital Humanities Symposium was to show that engaging with digital technologies is not just something that people do in science and engineering departments -- people working in the humanities (including visual arts, literature, theater, linguistics, and cultural studies) all use digital technologies too, and humanists are often keenly interested in thinking more carefully about how we use media and how media transforms knowledge and produces new forms of art.

Together with Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, GW Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare initiated the idea for the Symposium because it shares the goals of the conference. The Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare is a signature program in GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences that offers a select group of students a unique opportunity to explore the works of William Shakespeare in a global and multimedia context. 












Saturday, January 26, 2013

On the Road: Professor Evelyn Schreiber with Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou in Blacksburg, Virginia


Nikki Giovanni at the microphone;
Toni Morrison seated in the wheelchair on the right,
with Maya Angelou (less visible) in the
wheelchair on the left.
In Blacksburg, Virginia, on October 16th, 2012, James Madison University presented the Furious Flower Lifetime Achievement Award to two of America’s most recognized authors, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.   This presentation was followed by “Sheer Good Fortune,” a standing-room only tribute to Toni Morrison co-sponsored by the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech and the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.   The tribute to Ms. Morrison was hosted by Drs. Maya Angelou, Joanne Gabbin, and Nikki Giovanni. 

Professor Schreiber organized the tribute from the Toni Morrison Society and with twenty-three TMS members presented a choral reading of the Baby Suggs sermon in the clearing from Beloved (pages 88-89 Hardcopy). Society members wore black and donned yellow choral stoles with the TMS logo on both sides to create a special atmosphere for Morrison’s words.    


Maya Angelou's opening words set the tone for a memorable evening.  In all, over 30 participants (including Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Rita Dove, Edwidge Dandicat, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and India Arie), contributed celebratory readings from Ms. Morrison’s works.  Each selection was poignant and moving, leaving the audience overwhelmed by the beauty of Morrison’s words.   At the program’s end, Ms. Morrison responded with heartfelt pleasure.  She said that there are few times when she has been speechless and that this might be one.   “To have so many people answer the call to come together for one person and that one person is me, This is as good as it gets.”  She especially thanked Maya Angelou and mentioned that when she read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she realized that a door was open for black writers and black women writers stepped through.  Black male writers were interested in “confrontation of the oppressed,” but black women were not as interested in this.  In fact, “when you get the white male out of the novel, real things open up.”   Morrison said that as an author, her work no longer belongs to her once it is published and comes back to her in “different voices.”   She enjoyed hearing the passages from her works expressed in so many different voices and especially thanked Angela Davis for reading from Desdemona, her a collaborative play with Peter Sellars, which “if I have to say it myself, is extraordinary!”  What an extraordinary experience for Prof. Schreiber who had the “Sheer Good Fortune” to take part in the Toni Morrison Tribute in Blacksburg, VA!

Professor Schreiber and members of the Toni Morrison Society in a
Choral Reading of the Baby Suggs Sermon from Beloved.

You can watch Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the event, here on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lisa Zeidner Reading: Thursday, January 24th

Lisa Zeidner
Lisa Zeidner, the critically acclaimed author of Layover and Love Bomb, will be visiting GW on January 24th!

Lisa Zeidner is the author of five novels as well as two books of poetry.  She teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. Zeidner is the first author in a series this spring at GW, offered in conjunction with Jewish Literature Live

Students will have the opportunity to ask Zeidner questions about her works in an intimate classroom setting after reading her most recent work, Love Bomb. Ultimately, the students aim to debate the answer to the question, "What does being a Jewish American author mean?" and "Who considers themselves Jewish American authors?"

In the evening, Zeidner will give a reading that is free and open to the public.  The reading is in Marvin Center 309 at 7:30 PM. The reading will include a question-and-answer session.  The GW Bookstore will be selling Zeidner's novels, so everyone will have the opportunity to either expand or begin their collection of autographed works. 



Love Bomb: A Novel
The New York Times Sylvia Brownrigg wrote a glowing review of Love Bomb,

"With the pleasing intensity of an action film and none of the boring car chases, 'Love Bomb' is a witty, smart and densely packed novel, incorporating descriptions of SWAT tactics, references to NGO politics, a glance at run-of-the-mill suburban racism, a light look at 'badge bunnies' (women who like sleeping with cops) and many great, recognizable glimpses of the challenges of modern parenthood."

This amazing class and authorial readings are only made possible by the generosity of David Bruce Smith and the passion of its professor, Faye Moskowitz
For more information or questions please email: JewishLitLiveGWU@gmail.com

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tony Kushner Live! Schedule


The GW English Department presents Tony Kushner Live!, a series of programs culminating in Tony Kushner's visit to the GW campus in April. Please join us, and encourage students, colleagues, and community members to attend these exciting events. Below you will find a full schedule of events. Dates and times will also be posted on the GW English calendar and may occasionally be subject to change for the film and play series. This calendar will be expanded as even more events are added.  

Tony Kushner Live! is made possible in conjunction with Jewish Literature Live, the English Department’s course on contemporary Jewish American works of literature that debuted in Spring 2009 and that is now in its fifth year.  Jewish Literature Live is made possible thanks to a significant annual gift from David Bruce Smith; his gift has allowed students, each spring semester, to study and interact directly with prominent Jewish American authors. GW English Professor Faye Moskowitz teaches the course.  This spring, an additional significant gift from David Bruce Smith has made possible Tony Kushner’s visit and the events associated with it.  “We are so grateful for the innumerable ways in which David Bruce Smith’s generosity has deepened the intellectual experience for literally hundreds of students at GW, both in Jewish Literature Live itself and in the numerous public events associated with it.  Tony Kushner’s visit, in particular, will be one of the high points of the year for us,” said English department chair Professor Robert McRuer.

All events associated with Tony Kushner Live! are free and open to the public.  Direct any questions to Ramzi Fawaz at ramzi@gwmail.gwu.edu, program coordinator for the series.

Tony Kushner at Jack Morton Auditorium for public reading and discussion. 
April 9, 7:00 PM
No tickets required, but seats will fill up quickly. 



ACTING UP: Queer Film and Video in the Time of AIDS
A Joint Production of the GW English Department and American Studies Film Club
All Screenings 6-9pm

Bringing together eight films from the history of queer cinema along with readings from AIDS activists, scholars, and artists, ACTING UP reconstructs the affective and lived experience of the AIDS epidemic from the late 1980s to the end of the 20th century. Our screenings will be introduced and followed by discussions lead by distinguished faculty and graduate students from GW, University of Maryland, College Park, and Georgetown University. The series will especially feature a two-day showing and discussion of the film version of Kushner's Angels in America.  Our presenters include Christina Hanhardt, Caetlin Benson-Allot, Marilee Lindemann, Matthew Tinkcom, and Ramzi Fawaz among others.

Screenings will be held from 6-9 PM on various Wednesdays and Thursdays. Our Facebook site will be updated with information weekly and will shortly have the location of each screening. Information on how to locate the readings that accompany the films is also forthcoming.  You can join the Facebook page here.

1/23 (W) : AIDS Activist Shorts. Introduction: Christina Hanhardt. Location: Rome 771.
2/6 (W) : The Living End (Araki, 1992). Introduction : Caetlin Benson-Allot. Location: Rome 771.
2/20 (W): Longtime Companion (Rene, 1989). Introduction : Chad Heap. Location: Rome 771.
2/28 (Th): Boys on the Side (Ross, 1995). Introduction: Marilee Lindermann. Location: MPA B07. 
3/20 (W): Tongues Untied (Riggs, 1989). Introduction: Robert McRuer. Location: Rome 771.
3/28 (Th): Angels in AmericaPart I (Kushner, 2003). Introduction: Ramzi Fawaz. Location: MPA B07.
3/29 (F): Angels in America, Part II (Kushner, 2003). Introduction: Ramzi Fawaz. Location: Rome 771.
4/18 (Th): Still Around (Various, 2011). Introduction: Matthew Tinkcom. Location: MPA 307. 
4/24 (W): Common Threads (Epstein, 1989). Introduction: Melani McAlister. Rome 771. 

5/2 (Th): Silverlake Life (Friedman, 1993). Introduction: David Gerstner. MPA B07. -- 

Reading Kushner: A Play Workshop Series
All workshops from 12-2 PM in Rome 771

The GW English Department presents "Reading Kushner," a four session workshop series that will explore four key plays including "Homebody/Kabul," "Caroline, Or Change," and both parts of "Angels in America." Workshops will be faculty and graduate student lead and will include close analysis of the plays themselves as well as short enactments of key scenes by students from Theatre and Dance. 

Friday, February 8th, Homebody/Kabul
Friday, March 8th, Caroline, or Change 
Friday, March 29th, Angels in America: Millenium Approaches
Friday, April 12th, Angels in America: Perestroika
TBA, workshop on Lincoln

For readings and additional information on the film series and play workshop series, please e-mail Ramzi Fawaz at ramzi@gwmail.gwu.edu.

"Kushner's World" Presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance
March 1, 7:30 PM
Performances from Tony Kushner's plays at Theatre J, 1529 16th Street NW,
Washington D.C.  The evening will be an introduction to and sampling of the playwright's distinguished 
body of work, including Angels in AmericaHomebody / Kabul, and several adaptations of classic plays.
The event, which is free and open to the public.

Kushner's Angels and Demons: A Lecture by English Professor Robert Combs
Thursday, March 28, 3 PM in Rome Hall 771

Professor Combs presents his latest work, with special attention to Kushner's Angels in America.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On the Road: Professor Patricia Chu in Beijing


Professor Chu describes "Narratives of Return: Transpacific Returns in Asian American Literature" at Renmin University

            On Wednesday, December 26, I gave a talk for English language and literature students and scholars at Renmin University in Beijing.   The university, also known as People's University of China, was founded in 1950 as the first national university of the People's Republic of China.  Its students' national college entrance exam scores are said to place it among the top 3 universities in the nation, and the campus, with its large central plaza and imposing new buildings, communicates those high standards and expectations.  My host was Professor Xie Jiangnan, who uses the English name Jean, an associate professor of  British drama who shares my love of the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

            Drawing on my research on Asian American narratives of return, I focused on the critical concepts of racial melancholia, autobiographical truth, and countermemory in two Chinese North American memoirs, Denise Chong's 1994 family memoir, The Concubine's Children: The Story of aChinese Family Living on Two Sides of the Globe, and Yung Wing's political autobiography published in 1909, My Life in China and America  In the first half of the talk, I described David L. Eng and Shinhee Han's concept of "racial melancholia" as arising from an incomplete process of mourning the losses associated with immigration.  Theoretically,  this process of mourning is difficult to terminate because Asian Americans cannot transfer their allegiance to a new object, their host country, due to structural bars to membership and citizenship.  Thus "racial melancholia" is a form of depression conceptualized less as an individual mental condition and more as a response to lasting and unresolved racial discrimination.  (Such melancholia, of course, is not limited to Asian Americans but can be observed in other minorities as well.)  Drawing on the family story of a Chinese Canadian laborer and the young woman he purchased to serve as his concubine in the 1920s, I argued that the couple experienced racial melancholia due to conditions of poverty, race and class discrimination, and (in the concubine's case) gender exploitation.  Their daughter inherited this melancholia, which left her periodically depressed even as she successfully married, worked her way out of poverty, and raised her family.  However, the couple's granddaughter, the book's author, insisted that writing the book, which involved returning to China to research the Chinese history of the family, was more than an act of family therapy:  it was a historical intervention and an act of memorialization.  "It doesn't matter that my grandparents were paupers when they died, or that Vancouver's Chinatown has been torn down and rebuilt," Chong once said, at a conference in Toronto.  "What matters is that they remain alive, here,"--and she held up her book.

            In registering the gaps and contradictions among her many sources, Chong  highlighted her own authorial work in constructing the difference between "historical truth," limited to externally verifiable facts, and "autobiographical truth," which focuses on the consciousness of the writer.   Out of this discrepancy Chong created a "countermemory" which reframed her grandparents' story, as George Lipsitz might say, by "bringing it into a new alignment of meaning with the past" (as quoted by Rocio Davis in Relative Histories: Mediating History in Asian American Family Memoirs).

             Whereas Chong herself creates a "countermemory" in her text, the memoir of the 19th century Chinese American biographer Yung Wing demands that the critic create a "countermemory" by reading between the lines of his biography.   Yung's 1909 autobiography, My Life in China and America, described his unique education as the first Chinese man to be educated in New England and graduated from an American university.  Having mastered English, claimed U.S. citizenship in 1952, graduated from Yale in 1954, and returned to China, Mr. Yung proposed and led the first formal educational exchange program between China and America, with the aim of creating a core of Chinese "foreign experts" who could lead China through its desperate transition toward modernity.    I suggested that by reading beyond Yung's account of his achievements and contemplating the interior experiences implied in his silences, modern readers could discern the stress and racial melancholia that attended Yung's condition as the only Chinese person of his generation who could see China through American eyes, simultaneously isolated and empowered by his American education, and driven, on behalf of China, both to use and to challenge the very historical forces that had Westernized him.

            After the talk, which marked my own 4th visit to China, I continued my study of my own roots by visiting and exchanging stories with family members in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Zhuji.  On my last full day in Beijing, my husband and I visited Beijing University, where my father had completed his M.A. in Chinese history in the 1930s.  Years ago, my father said he had stayed with the famous scholar Hu Shi, the father of Chinese modernism and sometime President of Beijing University, while studying for his grad school entrance exams.  With the help of a scholarly internet posting, a Beijing University reference librarian, and a smart cabbie, we located Dr. Hu's house in Miliangku Hutong--an alley of gray, one-story brick buildings flanked with new-looking cars--in an older neighborhood behind the Forbidden City.  The owner invited us into the courtyard for a look.  Of the four wings around the central courtyard, one was entirely new; two had been renovated; and last was in its "original" state from the 1930s; but in the wintry cold of Beijing, the present inhabitants had lined the windows with curtains, sheets, and plastic.   It looked like nothing special, but here my dad once talked history, poetry, and politics with Hu Shi, just a few years before the Japanese would arrive, about 25 years before I was born.   We thanked the owner, and he left us there, gawking and talking about the past, and went about his business.

Monday, January 14, 2013

From Today's Hatchet: Professor Soltan on MOOCs


Professor Margaret Soltan is among those interviewed in today's GW Hatchet, on the topic of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses):
"GW is on the verge of joining an online education revolution, following in the footsteps of elite universities that have over the past year launched hundreds of free online classes – open to anyone with computer access.
Photo by Tamara Trocki
The massive open online courses, or MOOCs, include videos and slides on topics ranging from philosophy to nutrition, and have elicited tens of thousands of sign-ups from around the world. Despite universal uncertainties about their financial stability and academic quality, the University is making headway on a slow rollout of the non-credit courses that would serve as GW's first MOOCs, a top official said last week....
One GW professor, associate professor of English Margaret Soltan, has tackled MOOCs independently. She already teaches a course on poetry through the Faculty Project at Udemy, winning considerable exposure on account of the course, including a profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education and a request to speak at Harvard University.
But the exposure comes without direct financial gain.
'It’s all a rather shaky proposition – if money is your aim,' Soltan said. 'If getting your university’s name out there in the world in a big way is a motivation, and if doing some good in the world is a motivation, MOOCs are a very good way to go.'"

Sunday, January 13, 2013

On the Road: Professor David McAleavey in Auckland

David McAleavey and Witi Ihimaera

As the semester begins, the English Department Blog is happy to revive its "On the Road" series, occasional short pieces detailing the comings and goings of our illustrious faculty.  As this photo shows, Professor David McAleavey got together with a former GW World Literature Fellow, the Maori writer Witi Ihimaera.  Professor McAleavey was in Auckland, New Zealand shortly before Christmas, 2012.

Professor McAleavey writes, 

"When I was directing the Creative Writing program, I organized a series of one-month residencies with important authors from various countries (India, New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa). Witi’s residency included the screening of the film Whale Rider, based on his novel of that name. Now retired from the University of Auckland, where he had been teaching creative writing, Witi continues to write; his most important recent novel is The Trowenna Sea (Raupo/Penguin, 2009). He has also just assisted with a new film based on his work, whose plot hinges around disguised racial identity in a postcolonial context, and he has high hopes for this becoming a major motion picture. Stay tuned!"  You can watch the trailer for the film The Whale Rider here.

Next up in On the Road: Professor Patricia Chu in Beijing.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rome Hall and Beyond: English Majors and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation on the Contemporary Writer and Education


As the Spring 2013 semester begins, we asked GW English PhD candidate Elizabeth Pittman, to reflect on her experiences teaching an innovative service learning course.  It was a successful semester, marking the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between GW English and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.  Her reflections on the course are included here.

“Create dangerously for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer.” Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

“Schools are frontline institutions for putting teeth into democratic possibilities in the U.S. context.” Patricia Hill Collins, Another Kind of Public Education

Pictured (left to right): Emma, Emily, Kaelyn, Stephanie,
and Mary Kate.  Not pictured: Britt and Kate 
             This semester I had the privilege to work with six creative and thoughtful students, five of whom were English majors, in a service-learning course. The class had a very busy and productive semester.  The course allowed students to work with the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a leader in the support of contemporary and emerging writers as well as literary arts and education. This has been a truly collaborative class. Emma Snyder, the Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation met with students every other week, and sometimes more often. She also attended our class meetings once a week on campus in Rome 771. In this space we generated exciting conversations about the nature of education, success, failure, and the growing role of digital platforms and technology in the literature classroom. The students had the amazing opportunity to work with Emma and to contribute to an ongoing venture.

GW English Professor Edward P. Jones's
Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novel
Stephanie, Britt, Emily, Kaelyn, Mary Kate and Kate each thought of innovative ways to teach contemporary novels, poetry, short stories, and memoir. For their collaboration with PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools curriculum project, each student read three novels and researched, wrote, and finalized three separate lesson plans for a high school class. Mary Kate even developed lesson plan materials for The Known World by Edward P. Jones. While the class was organized around the theme of contemporary writing and the citizen reader, in our class discussions, we often participated in current debates surrounding the future of education in America, particularly around issues of standards in the classroom, assessing instructors, and methods for teaching writing and critical thinking skills. The quotations above, hopefully, provide a sense of some of the guiding themes and outcomes of our class discussions. For example, one of the major “values” we settled upon as a class throughout the semester following a reading of bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress and Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop is the value of confusion in the classroom as both a pedagogical tool and for the individual learner.

We explored approaches to teaching contemporary fiction as well as the crucial methods and skills that pursuing knowledge in the fields of the humanities enables as well as the critical skills that studying only literature can teach us. We thought about the CORE curriculum standards and the increasing prevalence of teaching non-fiction writing in order to teach expository and argumentative writing, rather than fiction. We thought about practical questions such as, how does teaching affect the way you read a text? What are the best practices for reading a novel that you intend to teach? We brainstormed writing lesson objectives and in-class student exercises. However, throughout the semester we also tackled philosophical questions such as how we identify and determine success and failure as a culture, as well as how we place education in the trajectory of an individual’s life path in U.S. culture.

In addition to developing a lesson plan portfolio that will eventually be hosted by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and used by high school teachers as part of an open access curriculum project, the students also crafter end of the semester projects on a topic of education policy or reform of their choosing. We read Sherman Alexie’s PEN/Faulkneraward-winning War Dances, a multi-generic text in which the author explores loss, fatherhood, race relations, and social conflicts. Students were asked to connect their research about public education practices in some way to his work, either to discuss a skill that his text elucidates or how his text works as a conceptual tool. One student wrote on cultural perceptions of private versus public educations and the use of school vouchers to “promote” students and specific forms of education. One student wrote on tracking students in the classroom, and another examined the role of multiculturalism in the development of curriculum, as a reform ideal, inclusive curricula, as well as the notion, following hooks, of the teacher’s position within the classroom. Following up on our examination of writing pedagogy and how we learn to write analytical argument as literature students, another student examined the “catch method” alluded to in a recent essay published in The Atlantic.

This course represents an exciting direction for the English department, as students were able to think about the ways their college education impacts both their future careers and the role of literary studies in the future of the academy. We even reflected on course readings by using Twitter and tumblr, thereby opening the classroom to a larger public of readers.