From my office window, I can see the ongoing construction that will eventually produce the new student center. It’s annoying when the thumps and rattles get too loud, or when vibrations knock books off the shelves. But there’s something comforting and hopeful about it: looking out of the 19th century (Guilford House) into the 21st (the Tinkham Veale University Center). This is one of the things that the humanities are good for—discovering context and juxtaposition, giving history its due, looking toward the future.
Last year was a good year for the English Department, and looking back on it is a pleasure. Several of our faculty members have new books under contract (Michael Clune, Sarah Gridley, and Thrity Umrigar). The poet and cultural critic Lewis Hyde spoke about “Cultural Commons and Collective Being.” Former faculty member Tom Bishop came by to give a lecture on Shakespeare—it was almost as if he’d never left for New Zealand. Another former colleague, Thomas Sayers Ellis, did a reading of his poems as a benefit for the Frederica Ward Memorial Scholarship.
This fall, classes in Guilford and elsewhere are proceeding in a way that would be familiar to alumni: faculty and students speaking, discussing, arguing over the many varieties of literature and writing. Jim Sheeler introducing journalism students to the finer points of flip cameras and media storytelling. Rob Spadoni showing film clips and explaining just why Orson Welles is a great director. Martha Woodmansee leading a seminar on the history of the book in Kelvin Smith Library. Students are writing papers and stories and poetry, and groaning over exams. All very familiar stuff to CWRU graduates.
But little things are different. We’re welcoming a faculty member, Hee-Seung Kang, who is the new ESL Director. We said goodbye to Judy Oster, who was both alum (‘79) and beloved colleague. The grad students have formed The English Graduate Student Association, to raise money and promote congenial events. We have a new crop of freshman, just over 1370 strong, the largest freshman class ever, beating out the former record class of 1968 by almost a hundred. A month ago, the Emily Dickinson International Society held their conference here (with a surprising revelation, see “International Emily” below). Next summer, the Department will host a creative writing conference in June with the theme “Breaking Genre.” Guilford House itself has been spruced up: new windows were installed last summer (carefully chosen to suit the building’s age and style).
A few weeks ago, an alum wandered into Guilford. She’d been touring the campus with her nephew, and stopped to visit, and tell us how she used to live in a room on the first floor with the bow window (Room 107, which is now the graduate students’ common room). When she needed a little extra money, she got a job at the snack bar in Haydn Hall. She graduated in 1939, and was planning to go into social work, but was derailed by World War II. She came here for an education, with a plan to make the world better, much like new alums Abi Pink, Erin Wendell, and Meredith Collier, who graduated in June and are working for Teach for America. It was a nice moment, a charming past denizen of Guilford visiting to remind us of how much things change—again, I’m looking out at the towering cranes and piles of dirt that will be a striking modern building (with a “green” roof) in 2014—and how much they remain the same.
He was Professor Salomon to me—even when I became a colleague (even years after I had finished my degree), but somehow, as we worked together—he as Chair or Graduate Director and I as Director of Composition—I finally managed to say “Roger” to his face. And what a collegial experience it was to work with him, not just for me and my faculty colleagues, but, in my student days, to all of us graduate students, as he “chaired” and “directed” us. While we were still in the unrenovated, unairconditioned, roach infested but beloved department “home”—Clark Hall, we had to trudge up those long flights of stairs to get to his office on the top floor, but the conversation was always worth it. Then there were those spontaneous meetings and important conferences on that grand, but only stair case, as grad students, faculty, undergrads, department assistants all used them to get to wherever we had to go. Yes, to all of us he was the Professor—more recently Oviatt Professor—but at the same time, always friendly, always gracious, always ready to talk over a paper, a course plan, a financial crunch. He treated our every paper or seminar comment with the greatest respect, even as he offered his critiques and sent us back to the drawing board—a gentleman and a scholar indeed.
In department meetings Roger’s voice, low and calm, could cut through dissent with an opinion that was thoughtful and wise, and therefore respected. In those days, grad students were all invited to sit in on the meetings and voice our opinions and questions, which became part of our introduction to the workings of the department and its priorities as well as to the profession. One meeting that stands out for me concerned choice of a faculty candidate. The debate centered on how closely each finalist met the criteria on the search’s “checklist.” A couple of candidates seemed to fit exactly. Which one to choose? Then Roger spoke up, and in his quiet way pointed out that in focusing too closely on the checklist, we were passing up the one candidate who looked brilliant – the best, most creative mind. Roger took us out of our narrow box, and fortunately, his opinion prevailed.
In a wholly different kind of meeting to choose graduate T/A applicants, we were agonizing over those few remaining slots, good candidates still remaining in the to-be-chosen group – but with not enough slots for them all. We were weighing the pros and cons of each one. And then Roger, who had interviewed them all at length, in person, introduced a whole new term – his words: “the desire factor.” What a concept to throw in with GRE’s and transcripts and recommendations.
Such thinking was Roger’s hallmark: he was a tough prof – As were not easily come by. Yes, he was demanding – whether of quantity or standards of excellence – standards surely influenced by his own education: a B.A. from Harvard, a Ph.D. from Berkeley; yet at the same time he was always giving of his time and incisive intelligence to make us the best scholars and writers we could be. In conferences, in exams, in dissertation advising, he cut to the chase. He organized and made us organize. I came to him with a beautiful outline for a paper on To the Lighthouse. He perused it thoughtfully, drew a circle around item IIB and said – there, that’s your paper. Well, gulp – oh – but it was good advice from which I benefited not only for a paper, but for my teaching and subsequent writing. “Sharper focus” kept resonating in our heads. We were encouraged, told: that’s fine – but you could do it better. And we did. You never walked out of his office without suggestions of books – even with the books.
Roger deserves much of the credit for my return to Robert Frost. Directing composition with one course off a year, and before the days of a research leave, teaching, writing a text book for ESL composition (a bird in hand looking better than two in the bush), the knowledge that returning to Frost would involve broadening my scope, and including contemporary theorizing, I had just let it go. That is until Roger, who had served on my dissertation committee, brought me up short with one sentence: “It would be criminal not to publish that dissertation.” “Criminal” – who could ignore that? In addition, Roger suggested that I go to the University of Georgia Press. They had just published – to great acclaim – his groundbreaking book, Desperate Storytelling: Post-Romantic Elaborations of the Mock-Heroic Mode. Allowing me to quote that sentence, he got me an immediate reading by his editor. The rest, as they say, has been history – a good history – for me.
And then there is Roger, the consummate host. He and Betty opened their elegant home to us holiday party after holiday party, white birch logs crackling in their fireplace, Roger and Betty making us all feel at home. But it didn’t have to be a department party – the year I was in his Bloomsbury seminar, he invited us all to his home for the last session, and to top it off, Betty had made Boeuf en Daube, the dish Mrs. Ramsay’s cook makes in To the Lighthouse. In fact Betty has always been involved in our events, a welcome presence, and an honorary member of the Clark/Guilford gang.
But why should I just go on about the Roger I know? I thought it might be nice to include little snippets of what other former graduate students had to stay. I contacted those I was still in touch with from the Roger Era, but they felt moved to write more, their own “Roger stories.” Please follow the link for elaborations on these and more:
“Mostly I remember his thoughtful longhand comments and his seemingly endless patience in teaching me to “cut, cut, cut – focus, focus, focus!” I quote him to my students all the time. . . . He convinced me that my project was meaningful and that I should stick with it.” Amy Kesegich (’01)
“All of my ‘major events’ as a graduate student have Roger solidly in the picture. . . . He was truly a guidepost for me, and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. . . . He taught me much about how to balance the rigors of graduate school and growing up responsibly with having a whole lot of fun.” Carla Kungl (’00)
“As he has done for so many others, Roger inspired my confidence with his quiet ways, his sparkling eyes, his quick perception, and his sincere advice.” Donna Gessell (’95)
“Beyond embodying the life of the mind, he is a living testament to the idea that the very purpose of the humanities is to humanize.” Bonnie Shaker (’98)
“In reading Roger Solomon’s writing, I hear the beauty and ease of his prose: ripe with knowledge but so unburdened by self-consciousness. That is a gift that he tried to give me. . . I have come back to those lessons over the years in my writing life.” Kirsten Komara (’96)
“Roger: What a lovely man . . . . I always felt challenged and supported in equal measure, and at a time when I was unconsciously, and sometimes very consciously, working out tensions in my own psyche. . . . Roger . . . helped me learn how to position my ideas in a scholarly way; helped me put them on the public stage in a way that I could claim them.” Elizabeth Welch (formerly Robenalt) (’90)
And in the text:” Those two words – “kind” and “gentle” – describe Roger as a scholar, advisor, teacher, and person. . . . He gave so much to all of us, and expected much in return”. Celeste Wiggins (’96 )
Roger – because this has really been to Roger as well as about Roger – now I am honored to be in your club – the Emeriti/ae – and especially in the more exclusive club, Emeriti/ae of our English department. May we remain colleagues and friends for years to come.
With affection and appreciation,
Michael Clune has been invited to give a reading from his book-in-progress, Gamelife, at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC.
Ubaraj Katawal‘s article, “In Midnight’s Children, the Subalterns Speak!” is accepted for publication in Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory in the Spring 2013 issue.
Athena Vrettos‘s article “The Founding of the Society for Psychical Research: 1882” is forthcoming from BRANCH.
Thrity Umrigar‘s latest novel, The World We Found, was selected as the Fort Collins Reads book for the year, in Fort Collins, Colorado. She will be presenting there in November.
Jabbar: From the very beginning of my teaching career, I wanted my students to treat composition and literature classes as an enjoyable intellectual experience rather than an unpleasant hurdle. I wanted my students’ freshman and sophomore years to be a memorable time during which they picked up life-long learning skills of critical thinking, reasoning, analysis, enjoyment of literature, and, in the process, acquired a reasonable mastery of language resources to make their own expression of ideas engaging.
Over the years, I continued using several textbooks as my allies in this cause and achieved some of my goals. However, I noticed the wide divergence in the levels of preparation among my students. Some of them, would need repetition of instruction in some areas, whereas those with a higher level of preparation would tend to be bored with that repetition. In addressing the needs of those at the bottom, I felt I was neglecting the needs of those who needed more challenging assignments. I found an overwhelming majority of my students fearful of taking composition and literature classes. They were often unsure of what was expected of them, especially when they wrote about literary works. In situations when they knew what was expected of them, they did not feel they had the necessary skills to complete their assignments. When asked to write an analysis or interpretation, they wrote little more than a summary or paraphrase. They had a very vague understanding of the concept of style and how it shapes literary creations.
To meet these needs of my students and to truly empower them, I started writing this book after about ten years of teaching. I completed the first very rough draft quickly because I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I addressed the very basic as well as the more sophisticated needs of my students. I was freed of the onerous and uninspiring burden of repetition of basic concepts.
The interview continues here.
Kayla Gatalica (’10) is going to Harvard Graduate School of Education this fall to study International Education Policy.
Alum (’08) Heather Kichner‘s dissertation, Cemetery Plots from Victoria to Verdun: Literary Representations of Epitaph and Burial from the 19th Century through the Great War, will be published in September as part of Peter Lang’s Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature Series.
Will Allison (’91) has a story in Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin.
Alum (’68) Willard Traub‘s work, photographs and text titled “Recovery,” is on exhibit at The Gathering Place in Beachwood until September 28.The work reflects the artist’s own experience battling a rare form of blood cancer.
Cleveland rocks. Emily rocks. Building from bedrock like that, how could the Emily Dickinson International Society Annual Meeting in Cleveland do anything but? Sandwiched between the 2011 Annual Meeting in Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and the 2013 International Conference in Washington, D. C., the Cleveland Annual Meeting certainly held its own in the history books of EDIS gatherings.
Starting the weekend with a bang, scholar Martha Nell Smith opened with “Emily Rocks: Those Bells won’t ‘cool My Tramp’” sharing both music inspired by Dickinson poems and the stunning revelation of a potentially new Dickinson daguerreotype, which, if real, would be only the second confirmed image of Dickinson. Of course, when the news went viral in the media several weeks later, the conference attendees could laugh smugly and say, “That was so August 3rd.”
Kevin Dettmar also gave a fascinating talk entitled “Dickinson and Zombies” that had next to nothing to do with zombies but a whole lot to do with rock and roll, so that even those of us not aficionados of the genre found ourselves engrossed in electric guitar solos and exercises of “what did those lyrics really say?” James Guthrie gave a talk about the connection between Western Reserve University and Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, who Gary Stonum—the current Oviatt Professor—recently revealed was the original recipient of the Oviatt chair back in 1837. Barbara Mossberg rounded out the plenary sessions with an enthralling talk of Dickinson and chaos, which, at one point, involved Dickinson’s image sporting a cowboy hat and sunglasses.
We rounded out the fun with a little chaos of our own, reciting, singing, dancing, puppetting, and otherwise performing Dickinson’s poems at an evening cabaret, during which the audience kindly laughed while I shared messages from a number of our evening’s ‘sponsors.’ (“You have breath so bad even death won’t invite you for a carriage ride? You need ‘The Evergreens’ Mints!”) The weekend’s entertainment also included a trip to the Rock Hall, and a Saturday night dinner at some of Cleveland’s best restaurants. (I highly recommend the sangria and calamari from Mallorca!)
Other not to be forgotten highlights included poem discussion sessions, the annual research circle, and a sneak preview of the graduate student website to be launched as a 182nd birthday present to Miss Dickinson on December 10th, 2012. Gary Stonum and his faithful crew (a.k.a. Brad Ricca and their graduate minion Kate) managed to make Cleveland a pretty fashionable place for the EDIS meeting attendees, but if you missed out, don’t worry—you can still get a t-shirt!
THINK Forum with Jim Sheeler. Alumni Weekend Event. Guilford Parlor. 2:30 to 4:00.
Craft of Comics. An Insider View with Marc Sumerak. Clark 206.
12:30 to 2:00.
Joyce Brabner/J.T. Waldman discuss Harvey Pekar. Thwing Ballroom. 6:30-9:30.
Bill Berkson lecture: “Hands On/Hands Off.” San Francisco-based poet, art critic, and curator Bill Berkson talks about his collaborations with contemporary artists such as Philip Guston, Colter Jacobsen, and Alex Katz. Clark 309. 6:00 to 7:00.
Science Fantasy: the New Mash-Up. A Panel Discussion with Mark Dawidziak, Charles Oberndorf, and Mara Purnhagen. Moderator: Karen Long. Clark 206. 4:30 to 6:00.
Sarah Gridley lecture: “Out Flew the Web and Floated Wide: Tennyson and Green Eschatology.” A Baker-Nord Faculty Work in Progress. Clark 206. 4:30 to 5:30.
English Colloquium. Malcah Effron presents “Rejecting the Phallus: A Feminine Symbol of Power In Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum Series.” Mary Grimm will serve as discussant. Guilford Parlor. 4:30 to 6:00.
Poetry Reading with George Bilgere and Brad Ricca. Guilford Parlor. 5:00 to 6:00.