Letter from the Chair/”What Are You Reading?” /Faculty Notes/NEH Summer Institute/ Alumni News/ASLE Biennial Conference/Coptic Binding/Faculty Timeline/Grad Picnic
In another technocratic era, Charles Dickens intimated that calling a horse by its name was getting extremely hard. In the second chapter of Hard Times when the teacher Thomas Gradgrind famously orders “girl number twenty” to define a horse, he is disappointed by her response—which is, in perplexity, to not respond at all. When a boy named Blitzer promptly replies: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth,” the educational consequences for poor Sissy Jupe, whose father works in horse racing, are chastening: “’Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’”
As I start my first year as chair of Case Western Reserve’s Department of English, I am struck by the similitude between Dickens’ caustic view of education and our own hard times in the humanities. That such a scene takes place in a novel is, of course, telling. Dickens knows that literature is one of the means by which other equally valid forms of naming can challenge the certitudes of those who think hard facts are all there is to know of a thing—whether a horse or a girl. The passage echoes many of the concerns we continue to ruminate over: how to make student participation in class vital; how to challenge gender-biased instruction; how to balance practical education with life-affirming learning; how to regard the world in terms other than the merely utilitarian; and how to confront the politics of naming and foster the imaginative power of words.
My challenge to all of us in this current technocratic age is not only to regard students, teachers, horses, and names with fresh and compassionate eyes, but also to ensure that “The English Department” is a name that connotes a dynamic and varied group of endeavors. Blitzer might say, “Academic Unit. Omnivorous. Fifty-two faculty, namely seventeen Professors, three Instructors, twenty-nine Lecturers, and six Emeriti. Also twenty-nine Graduate and eighty-eight Undergraduate Students, and countless Alumni. Bustles in the fall and spring semesters; in winter often complains about the elements. Effectiveness known by the number of essays, books, videos, discussions, and creative writing it annually produces.” But the English Department at Case Western Reserve University is, most importantly, a place where passionate intellects of all ages promote the continuously evolving ways that poetry, drama, and fiction intersect with film history, journalism, writing instruction, the study of rhetoric in digital and print contexts, and literary history from Beowulf and William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson and The Company of Wolves.
If anything, a university should attempt, as its name implies, to offer students a universal experience, in which the humanities, as the name indicates, make us reflect on what it means to be human; and it should be a place where the creation and study of literature, as that name suggests, make us literate in all the best senses of the word. So, whether you are an undergraduate seeking to publish your journalism, a graduate student planning a conference presentation, a lecturer or instructor completing your book, a professor creating an innovative course, or an alumnus hoping to further the educational mission of the English Department, I hope you find a way to harness this collective departmental energy, then let go of the reins, and create something wild and free, a horse by another name.
Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, Truman Capote.
I was led—somewhat unconsciously—to read this book by picking up, one summer afternoon, Vita Sackville-West’s The Eagle and the Dove, a comparative biography of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Therese of Lisieux. I put that book right back down again, but not before a saying accredited to Saint Teresa snagged my mind: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” That led me, later that night, into a vintage bookstore, where my hand closed firmly on Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers. I decided to read it at last, since it was the only book by Capote that I had never read. I have always been in awe of his enameled style and artistic courage, and still see him as the creator of the nonfiction novel because of his 1966 achievement with In Cold Blood, despite the fact that Norman Mailer’s 1968 Armies of the Night later won the Pulitzer Prize for the genre.
As is widely known, the bitter end of Capote’s life runs parallel with the debacle of this novel’s critical and popular reception: each is a spectacle of failure, and those are hard to watch. The narrative’s plot lines are tangled or truncated and repeat themselves with no apparent purpose, most of the characters are “absent,” flat or only silhouetted, and the main character is highly opaque—clearly a man who is difficult to know, even for himself. Maybe the difficulties of the novel would have been sorted out if Capote had lived to complete his book, but as a project that he claimed to have worked on for eighteen years, it is now more a confirmation of the difficulties of his life than culminating evidence of his artistic talent. Facing this disappointment about a writer so brilliant was a harsh experience for a longtime fan, but I’m glad that, finally, I didn’t look away.
Love and Other Ways of Dying, Michael Paterniti.
A plane crash. An interview with a giant. A trip across the country with Albert Einstein’s brain in the trunk. In Love and Other Ways of Dying, Michael Paterniti collects some of his favorite magazine articles of the past twenty years, and in turn creates one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. The only twist is that every word is true. Earlier this month the book was named a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian.
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian is the first in the Aubrey-Maturin series made up of twenty-one novels. Set during the Napoleonic wars, the texts are not only beautifully written but also offer a historically convincing portrayal of life aboard a British ship during the early nineteenth century. Most compelling is the way that O’Brian explores the friendship between the commanding if at times coarse Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin who simultaneously plays the roles of natural historian/doctor and spy. These books are excellent reads for those who enjoy historical fiction and they require no pre-existing interest in naval history to find them immersive.
The Strongest Men on Earth: When the Muscle Men Ruled Show Business, Graeme Kent.
Journalist, broadcaster, and novelist Graeme Kent offers a historical account of the popularity of professional strongmen and—although the book title does not indicate this—strongwomen who toured Europe and North America in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Kent’s study is largely structured as a series of anecdotes that profile notable bodybuilders and acrobats including Eugen Sandow, Rosa Richter (Zazel: The Human Cannonball), and Katie Sandwina. Popular at circuses and music hall shows, these performers entertained large audiences and fueled public enthusiasm for physical fitness and improved health. Kent suggests that professional strongwomen, in particular, encouraged other women to be independent and attend to the shaping of their physiques as they saw fit. The Strongest Men on Earth would appeal to both sports historians and readers interested in the physical culture movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The works of Stephen King.
Over the summer, I spent an excessive amount of time teaching myself to enjoy reading again. I intended to read a few novels for my upcoming exams… but I just could not make myself do it. My first goal was Frances Burney’s Cecilia, a book I’ve read before and enjoyed. But I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. I could not focus. A friend suggested I venture into Stephen King’s novels. My academic ego balked at the idea, but I gave it a try. And I could not stop. I read Bag of Bones, The Stand, Mr. Mercedes, and a few others. Becoming enmeshed in King’s characters reminded me that I, in fact, do like reading. I began making connections between King’s novels and eighteenth-century novels—admittedly broad and sweeping connections. Yet these connections allowed me to take up Cecilia and genuinely enjoy the novel again.
Michael Clune was interviewed about his new memoir Gamelife on All Things Considered.
Susan Dominguez presented a THINK seminar on “Dignity” during CWRU’s First Year Orientation.
T. Kenny Fountain‘s book, Rhetoric in the Flesh: Trained Vision, Technical Expertise, and the Gross Anatomy Lab, is reviewed in Communication Design Quarterly.
Sarah Gridley‘s interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson (originally for Denver Quarterly) has recently been republished in The Letter Machine Book of Interviews, edited by Cristiana Baik and Andy Fitch.
Kristine Kelly has been awarded an ITS Active Learning Fellowship for Spring 2016.
Dave Lucas has a poem in the current issue of The Threepenny Review.
William Marling‘s Ernest Hemingway / Pedro Romero is currently on view in the Jewish Community Center’s Annual Art Show.
Marilyn Mobley co-wrote “Advancing Diversity Through CDO and SIO Collaboration” for Insight into Diversity
Brad Ricca was a panelist at Comic-Con in San Diego.
Thrity Umrigar has just signed a two-book adult fiction deal with Harper-Collins.
Martha Woodmansee participated in a panel discussion devoted to the questions “What should histories and theories of intellectual property be doing?” “What role should interdisciplinarity play?” at the 7th annual workshop, July 22-24, of the International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property (ISHTIP).
This summer I attended the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute titled “Paul Laurence Dunbar and American Literary History.” The program was directed by the Creative Learning Factory and featured faculty members Dr. Gene Andrew Jarrett of Boston University, Dr. Nadia Nurhussein of University of Massachusetts Boston, independent scholar Dr. Ray Sapirstein, Dr. Andreá N. Williams of Ohio State University, and Dr. Herbert Martin of the University of Dayton. The lead faculty member was Dr. Thomas Morgan of the University of Dayton.
The institute was held in Columbus, Ohio, and featured three intensive weeks studying Paul Laurence Dunbar. Topics included historical context, biographical information, and the history of dialect. Dunbar writings we examined included his correspondence, poetry, musicals, short stories, novels, and newspaper articles. We also visited The Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and the Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historical Site in Dayton, Ohio, as well as the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio.
Despite his early death (in 1906 at the age of 33), Dunbar was a prolific author and best known as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro race.” But even though he was as famous as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois during his lifetime, he does not receive the same type of scholarly attention as the other two men. Part of the purpose of the institute was to recognize the important part that Dunbar played in shaping African-American writing and thinking during his lifetime and his influence on African-American writers in the early twentieth century, during the Harlem Renaissance, and after WWII.
The best part of the institute was the participants, who ranged from graduate students to tenured professors to prestigious Dunbar scholars. Discussions with such a diverse group of colleagues were both enlightening and thought-provoking. For example, one of the central questions was whether Dunbar was accommodating or subverting white reader expectations of his work through the use of dialect. Dunbar’s dialect poems were extremely popular among the white readership, who primarily requested that Dunbar perform, write, and publish in dialect. After discussing this topic I realized how Dunbar may be accommodating a white readership in order to publish his work while also using the subject of the dialect poetry to subvert white readership expectations of black subjects.
I plan on incorporating what I learned at the summer institute into my future classes and research. Dunbar’s work fills the often-vacant place of African-American writing during the post-Civil War era and in the late nineteenth century. Incorporating Dunbar into the classroom can help students recognize how African-American writers used dialect poetry, played with various forms of writing, and shaped identity during this time period. In addition to teaching Dunbar’s works, I plan on conducting future research into Dunbar as a political activist. I highly recommend applying for a chance to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute program and am happy to talk further to anyone who is thinking about applying for the summer of 2016.
Will Allison (’91) was a visiting editor at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
Jason Carney (’15) reviewed a book for Make: A Literary Magazine.
Adam Church (’14) plans to attend Washington University in St. Louis School of Law this coming year. Last year, he was enrolled independently in a language program at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Iris Dunkle (’10) has work appearing in Poecology Issue 5.
Nicole Emmelhainz (’15) has an essay forthcoming in the anthology The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror.
Eileen Sabrina Herman (’12) has just finished her MA from Carnegie Mellon University in Literary and Cultural Studies
Abdul Jabbar (’69) offered a seminar on U.S.-Pakistan Relations on City College campus in San Francisco. Twenty-two delegates from Pakistan and several of his colleagues participated in it.
Sarah Jawhari (’13) is training to be a dentist at the Case School of Dental Medicine.
Raymond Keen (’63) had five Vietnam War poems published online by Vietnam War Poetry.
Alum (’99) Jeff Morgan‘s book American Comic Poetry: History, Techniques and Modern Masters will be available in January, 2016.
Danielle Nielsen (’11) will be serving as the Coordinator of First-Year Composition at Murray State this fall.
Michael Rectenwald (’97) has a new book from DeGruyter: Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age.
The third and final in alum (’10) Brandy Schillace‘s middle grade fiction series has been released: Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles: The Vatican.
Bonnie Shaker (’98) is now Assistant Professor of English at Kent State Geauga, where she will share appointments in English and Journalism.
Mary Turzillo (’70) co-conducted a workshop at PARSEC’s Lecture Series on August 1st.
Marie Vibbert (’98) has a story, “Butterflies on Barbed Wire,” in Analog, the longest running continuously published science fiction magazine.
Alum (’70) Ronald Wendling‘s memoir, Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past has been published by Oak Tree Press.
Steven Wenz (’07) is now in the final year of a combined PhD program in Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University.
June 17th, 2015: NASA reveals that humans are permanently depleting half the world’s aquifers. June 18th: Pope Francis calls for a revolution to combat the global threat of climate change. June 19th: a study shows that extinction now occurs at rates orders of magnitude greater than pre-human levels.
June 23rd: over 900 members of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) gather at the University of Idaho for five days. ASLE members often greet news stories like the above with the same feelings of anger, fear, despair, shock, fascination, and disbelief expressed by the general public. ASLE members, however, are unusually determined to take scientists’ statements about environmental ills as seriously as they are stated, and to think critically not only about what information is to be trusted, but also why it isn’t trusted when it is so evidently well-supported.
From its beginning in the early nineties as a small offshoot of the Western Literature Association, largely focusing on the literature of wilderness experience (often male, white, Western, and wealthy), to its current instantiation as an international, cosmopolitan organization engaged with urban/rural ecology, science and culture, and issues of environmental and social justice, ASLE continues to be the premier venue for environmental scholarship in the humanities.
As a result of such a focus, ASLE is by nature an organization in which activism and scholarship cross-pollinate. At a time when congresspersons disregard empirical evidence by claiming not to be scientists, those tasked with teaching the skills necessary to assess information, to evaluate and criticize arguments, and to engage with literature that sensitively represents human experience and behavior, inevitably strike an activist pose. My part in this year’s gathering involved the organization of a panel on anthropomorphism and animals attended by over thirty conference-goers. George Hart of California State University Long Beach served as respondent and talked about the pathetic fallacy as discussed in his recent book on Robinson Jeffers and the Biology of Consciousness. Our panel was one in a “stream” of panels on animals & animality. Other streams concerned literature of the anthropocene and climate change (Cli-Fi); energy and extraction; indigenous cultures and postcolonial ecologies; sex, gender and bodies; plants, food and agriculture; science and poetry; and more. Headline speakers included Linda Hogan, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Ann Fisher-Wirth.
ASLE members seek to understand the ways in which the stories we tell, the rhetoric we use, and the experiences we record shape our human approach to environmental issues.
All incoming MA and PhD students take English 510, Research Methods. This semester the class, taught by Dr. Kurt Koenigsberger, is themed on The Collection — how do we collect books into libraries, pages into books, and words into language? These are theoretical questions, but they are also practical ones. Case in point: our class attended a workshop on Coptic binding techniques, taught by preservation librarian Sharlane Gubkin. We got to experience the tactile challenges of wrestling with pages, trying to keep our books looking orderly and functional while we sewed them together. Shockingly, we all succeeded. In the process, we were forced to come to terms with the ways in which we can take the simplest things for granted as scholars. What could be more fundamental for a student of literature that picking up and opening a book? Yet even this action has a history that deserves to be considered. —Philip Derbesy
In May 2013, I found myself engaged in University Archives for the first time, attempting to assemble comprehensive lists of graduate degree recipients in English. The Department had good lists of very recent degree recipients, but they didn’t stretch far enough back to ensure that the degree verification requests we occasionally receive could be completed. The Department now has lists of graduates—and titles of theses and dissertations—going back to the beginnings of the Graduate School at Western Reserve in 1926, which is very exciting.
What we didn’t have was a sense of who might have supervised the work of these graduate students, taught our undergraduate courses, or walked the halls before us. Through the summer of 2014 I worked to assemble comprehensive lists of regular faculty in English at CWRU and its precursor institutions. These lists are now available in a series of spreadsheets crammed with information about degrees, appointments, and administrative posts of our faculty. Thanks to the work of Susan Grimm, the project is now also available in a more attractive form as an interactive timeline on the Department’s homepage. The timeline stretches back to the 1870s, when the first appointment of an Instructor in English literature was made at Western Reserve.
The presentation of the timeline is quite colorful; Susan and I selected distinctive tones for each institution of appointment. Our current University emerged in the late 1960s as a federation of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, so we knew we’d need at least two shades to indicate faculty at Case and faculty at Reserve. What we hadn’t fully appreciated, however, is how complex the history of English at CWRU and its precursors is: in the period immediately preceding World War II, there were appointments in English in at least seven separate schools—Case School of Applied Science, Adelbert College, Mather College, Cleveland College, The Graduate School, Education, and Architecture. It wasn’t until 1952 that a single English Department at Western Reserve appeared and moved into consolidated office space on the north side of Bellflower Road.
Since 2014, many of our current graduate students have worked with me to begin to flesh out biographical and bibliographical notes for many of our distinguished faculty. These will be added to the timeline on our Web page, as we work to cultivate a deeper appreciation of our Department’s long and complex history in Cleveland. We hope the section of our Web site titled “Our History” continues to grow, and invite the corrections, submissions, and reminiscences of our alumni!
—Kurt Koenigsberger, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies
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