Department of English Newsletter: March 2024

//Letter from the Chair/Burgess-Van Aken Retirement/Grad Student to Medical Writer/Earlier This Year/Department News/The Way We Write Now/Alumni News//

Letter from the Acting Chair

This spring, I have had the privilege of serving as the department’s Acting Chair – don’t worry, our intrepid poet-scholar, Walt Hunter, will return next semester – and, while I am no stranger to administrative tasks, I confess that this particular appointment has given me an entirely new appreciation for the depth, breadth, and awesome diversity of our department. We really do contain multitudes. (Apologies to both Walts.)

Over the last several months, we have celebrated the births of new members of our extended departmental family (welcome, again, to Malek, Julian, and Clara!), and we are eagerly anticipating the arrival of several new faculty colleagues next fall. We have served an essential role in the university’s brand-new Unified General Education Requirement, offering one hundred and nineteen Academic Inquiry Seminars to this year’s incoming first-year students. This spring, our English majors are taking an exciting array of courses, from Science and Magic in Renaissance Literature (Maggie Vinter) to Trans Minor Literature (Baker-Nord Postdoctoral Fellow Aaron Hammes), from African American Dramatists (John Orlock) to Hitchcock (Rob Spadoni). In her doctoral dissertation defense just last week, Hayley Verdi demonstrated the value of interdisciplinary inquiry by adopting and interrogating narrative medicine advocate Rita Charon’s concept of the “corporeal gap” for the ways that it allows new readings of nineteenth-century illness narratives.

All semester, I have had a soundtrack weaving its way in and out of my consciousness, returning always to David Bowie’s “Changes” with its haunting imperative chorus: “Turn and face the strange…” It is a strange world, indeed, when headlines proclaim that generative artificial intelligence will soon make our jobs as teachers obsolete and our literary craft a quaint relic of slower times. And yet. According to Annettee Vee, our speaker for the Edward S. and Melinda Sadar Lecture in Writing in the Disciplines last December, the  “intelligence” in artificial intelligence resides in the reader and not in the chatbot. She suggests that in our fascination (and horror), we imbue Chat-GPT with our own deeply human facility for connection, interpretation, invention. The initial jolt of recognition – when the technology accurately predicts syntactic structures and produces an application letter, a five-paragraph essay, a reader’s report – might best be faced with curiosity rather than anxiety. What can we learn about the routinized forms that characterize contemporary discourse? How should our students engage with the bland prose (and verse) produced by these tools?

In realms where pixels dance and bytes take flight,

Where ink meets algorithm, shaping words with might

The union of writing and AI begins to ignite,

A symphony of creativity in digital light.


This makes me think what we do – both in our classrooms and in our creative and scholarly work – is still relevant and necessary. I look forward to facing the strange and imagining new possibilities together, as humans.

–Kim Emmons, March 2024

A Few Words on the Occasion of Barbara Burgess-Van Aken’s Retirement

by Bernard Jim

During the more than sixteen years that we have worked together at Case, Barbara has been a colleague, a mentor, and a friend.

Ours is a friendship that is a study in contrasts I suppose. When we go out for a drink, she orders wine, and I order beer. Barbara is diplomatic, poised, and thinks about the long game. I am impolitic, rash, and want to get my licks in. She taught me that there is more than one way to achieve your goals.

She is everything you could want in a mentor, and when I desperately needed a mentor, she obliged me. Generous with her time, connections, and opportunities, she’s a patient listener who knows how to talk you down from a ledge. Maybe she will take up hostage negotiations in her retirement?

She works hard, but never complains. (Editor’s Note: At her retirement party, she claimed that she does, in fact, complain. But not to me, apparently!) When you saw how much time and effort she put into the Celebration of Student Writing, for example, you didn’t need her to ask you, you wanted to pitch in.

As her colleague, I noticed that she built relationships rather than networks. Before any of us, she had developed relationships with Siegal Lifelong Learning Center, with Reflection Point, with Case Wellness, and with the Bar Manager at l’Albatros. You will not be surprised to learn that Barbara was selfless about sharing the benefits of those relationships..

I remember when we were doing observations, and I visited Barbara’s classroom. I guess it was for the sake of the Observed, but I was the one who learned something. My classroom is like a mosh pit. Hers a ballet. I am full of nervous energy. She was all grace and agility. Barbara had complete command of her seminar, and it calmed all her students down. She led the room in a few minutes of quiet meditation at the start of class. They knew she cared about their well-being, and her colleagues knew she felt the same way about them.

In the early days of SAGES, the Fellows would gather over the holidays and exchange silly gifts. Barbara would bring her Christmas cookies. They had intricate designs — trees, holly leaves, Santa — and she iced them with fine details. The care she took with those cookies was the same care she always took for her students, colleagues, and friends.

Barbara, from all of us whose lives you have touched over the past 21 years — Thank you!

After years as a higher education administrator and consultant for nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions nationwide, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken earned her PhD at Case Western Reserve University and embarked on a career of college-level teaching and research. Her academic interests include early modern women writers (particularly playwrights), Shakespeare, and higher education pedagogy.

From English Graduate Student to Medical Writer: Reflections on the Journey

by Mary K. Assad (’14)

I decided to pursue my MA in English because I was drawn to the power of literature. I wanted to read the most beautiful language I could find, examine what made it so moving, and craft analyses that would make others think, “wow, what a fascinating insight.” As a professor said in one of my earliest seminars, our goal was not to study ordinary language, but rather the most extraordinary language.

After completing my MA, I continued into the PhD program. Soon, I started to find myself drawn to language that wasn’t so extraordinary, at least not on the surface. Language of everyday life, language that gets things done. Ordinary language. I grew interested in the field of rhetorical studies and the ways in which scholars parsed language in all areas of life to gain insight into the human experience.

Taking a course on the rhetoric of health and medicine was like pulling back the curtain on a window I never knew was in the room. I realized that when you study ordinary language in a healthcare context— like personal health narratives, public health posters, or pharmaceutical ads — you could learn how people connect over shared diagnoses, or you could start to understand the fears or misgivings that patients bring to medical encounters.

Discovering medical rhetoric changed my doctoral path and shaped my approach to classroom teaching. It also made me realize that somewhere down the road, I wanted to be the one writing the messages I was analyzing. I wanted to have the opportunity to educate people on health and illness in ways that would, hopefully, inspire or empower them. Graduate studies in English led me to where I am today: working as a medical writer for Cleveland Clinic.

I have written about 250 articles in a little over two years, each one averaging 2,000 words. They’re published to the Clinic’s online Health Library, which aims to reach readers (mostly through web searches) across the nation and world. Each week, I receive several new assignments, and sometimes they’re vastly different.

I might be writing about RSV in children while researching a rare genetic disorder and finishing up a piece on the social determinants of health. I’ve written dozens of articles on surgeries, mostly cardiac and vascular. I’ve learned which blood vessels connect with the heart and at which chambers, and I’ve examined diagrams of the eye to figure out how to explain a corneal disease.

I am a humanities student thrown into a science classroom where the measure of my success isn’t a final exam but an essay I must produce to help someone understand how a disease is affecting their body. Or their loved one’s body. Maybe their child. I feel so responsible, and sometimes so helpless.

But I also feel empowered. This is something I never dreamed of doing when analyzing imagery in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s something I never knew could be possible with a PhD in English. It’s a place I never would have reached without a deep appreciation and love of the English language and its poetries, its harmonies, its rhythms and whispers. The extraordinary language that drew me to Guilford House is still in my heart and my mind, and studying it allowed me to realize how much we need words, in all their shapes and structures, to understand ourselves and our shared existence.

I have produced more ordinary language than I ever thought I could. I am told to make my sentences shorter and simpler. I remember to add more paragraph breaks and bulleted lists. And I make a note that it’s OK — even a good idea — to start sentences with conjunctions. Then, readers will feel connected. They’ll engage and understand. And maybe they’ll feel more confident asking their doctor a question or speaking up about their side effects. Maybe they’ll be the voice for their spouse or their aging parent. Perhaps I can reassure them there’s hope or remind them of their agency in a healthcare system where it’s all too easy to get lost or never have the opportunity to enter at all.

I am a medical writer producing words that will never be literary, nor will they pretend to be. I simply want to craft language that will make a reader think, “wow, so that’s how it works” or “now I understand.” I seek to explain which symptoms should prompt a doctor’s visit, or how a parent can manage a new diagnosis in their child.

The words we use to talk about health can have the power to move someone to pick up the phone. To feel more confident as a caregiver. To feel they’re not alone, or not to blame. And to me, that’s pretty extraordinary.

Earlier This Year

Jimmy Newlin delivering his lecture “Uncanny Fidelity: Recognizing Shakespeare in Twenty-First-Century Film and Television” in January.

 Josh Hoeynck delivering his lecture in February: “Archival Apocatastasis: Completing the Charles Olson and Robert Creeley Correspondence.”

Department News

George Blake’s article about the progress of lead safety in Cleveland has been published in The Land.

Cara Byrne and Kristin Kondrlik (’16) recently published their article “Rainbows in the Window: Static Childhood in COVID-19 Children’s Picture Books” in New Directions in Childhood Studies: Innocence, Trauma, and Agency in the Twenty-first Century.

Michael Clune‘s novel Pan will be published by Penguin in 2025

Congratulations to Cadence Dangerfield and Ellard Stolze who both passed their MA oral exams!

On Tuesday, January 23rd, Vicki Daniel gave a Zoom talk to the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health Lecture at the C.F. Reynolds Medical History Society. The talk was titled, “‘Could a situation be more ghastly?’: Doctors, Disinfectants, and the Dead After the Johnstown Flood of 1889.”

Hayden’s Ferry Review has published five of Joseph DeLong‘s visual poems and an interview with him as part of their online folio Mixing up Media.

Mary Grimm has won the C&R Press Award in Fiction for her book of short stories Transubstantiation.

Aaron Hammes, a postdoc in our department, is featured in The Daily.

Walt Hunter‘s book Some Flowers was reviewed in the Cleveland Review of Books.

English major Hannah Jackson discusses her spring break abroad with The Daily.

In late December, Kurt Koenigsberger was awarded $1.49M by the Mellon Foundation, in support of a third phase for the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative (which he directs), running through June 2027.

Dave Lucas gave the keynote at the annual conference of the Ohio Council of Teachers of Language Arts (OCTELA) in Columbus.

Alexandra Magearu published a short story about the criminalization of abortion in 1980s Romania in the other side of hope,

Marilyn Mobley‘s book on Toni Morrison’s narrative strategies is forthcoming from Temple University Press.

Jimmy Newlin‘s book Uncanny Fidelity: Recognizing Shakespeare in Twenty-First-Century Film and Television was published by the Strode Series in Renaissance Literature and Culture of the University of Alabama Press.

Steve Pinkerton‘s review essay, “Ralph Ellison, Democracy, and American Vernacular Culture,” will appear in Resources for American Literary Study, 45.1.

Stephanie Redekop has received a 2024 Life Worth Living Faculty Fellowship from Yale’s Center for Faith & Culture

Camila Ring’s piece, “Precisely Knowing Not: Emily Dickinson and Generative Negation,” is now out in ELH.

Earlier in March, Robin Beth Schaer led an open-level and multi-genre workshop on Nature & Ecological Writing in Cuyahoga Valley National Park for Literary Cleveland.

Lindsay Turner’s poem “The Forest / Wanting a Child” was published in The New York Review of Books.

Thrity Umrigar had a review of Amitava Kumar’s My Beloved Life published in the New York Times.

Hayley Verdi began her new position as Writing Center Coordinator at Ursuline College in January.

Marion Wolfe just had a chapter come out in an edited collection. Her essay is co-written with Elizabeth Rodrigues and is titled “Post-it as Praxis: Counternarrating Non-linearity and Multiplicity in Academic Lives” from the collection Career Narratives and Academic Womanhood: In the Spaces Provided, edited by Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle.

Saar Zutshi, an English major with a concentration in film, is one of two Case students who will show work at the Short. Sweet. Film Fest.

The Way We Write Now

by Dave Lucas

—“Who is speaking thus?”—

English faculty of a certain generation may have been haunted through graduate school by that question of Roland Barthes’s. In those days it was a delicious theoretical proposition: the death—and rebirth (and redeath?)—of the author.

Today the question returns—with far more practical stakes for those of us concerned with English studies and writing pedagogy. Who speaks? Our students? Or artificial intelligence?

If you believe the hand-wringing think pieces that accompanied the public debut of Chat GPT, in November 2022, you might think that the author is long dead, the student essay next, and complete submission to our new robot overlords not too far down the road.

Annette Vee, the 2023 Edward and Melinda S. Sadar Lecturer in Writing in the Disciplines, says it’s not that simple. In her December 11th lecture, “Automating Writing from Androids to AI,” Vee argued that attempts to automate writing are nothing new, despite the novelty of large-language model technology.

The eighteenth-century Swiss clockmaker Henri Maillardet produced a complex automaton that could write, if not compose. A century ago, W. B. Yeats and his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees turned to the spirit world for creative inspiration, as Georgie’s “automatic” writing, or psychography, became the basis (even if she never received an author’s credit) for the poet and occultist’s late work, A Vision (1925).

But it’s not just the writing that so worries and excites various observers. It’s the intelligence itself, and with it, a question of Alan Turing’s that might be set alongside Barthes’s: Can machines think?

If by “think” we mean “do human language” (a different, similarly complicated question), then the answer is no. Not yet, anyway. Vee, who teaches and directs the Composition Program at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that what large-language models like Chat GPT (that’s generative pre-trained transformer) do, instead, is to gather text and predict language based on a data set. These networks “learn” statistical relationships in large sets of data (text on the internet, for example) by exchanging language for numbers, turning those numbers into vectors that map relationships between words, then using that multidimensional map to produce words in a likely sequence.

In other words, Chat GPT isn’t speaking to you; it’s predicting what someone might say. If it looks like AI is reasoning, Vee argues, that’s because we fill in the reasoning. We humans are still—for better or worse—the (non-artificial) intelligence. Perhaps this is why—as our own Walt Hunter has argued—Chat GPT remains a lousy poet. (

What about our students’ papers? Vee reminds us that—whatever our best pedagogical intentions—we’ve never known with absolute certainty who’s writing those, whether our students or their roommates or someone else entirely. Whether those essays were composed in a dorm room or bought online or manifested from an astral plane, we can never truly know.

We can develop and employ software to police other software, or we can recognize the opportunity at hand: Chat GPT, Grammarly, and other writing applications offer us a chance to reengage with our students in a discussion of the complexities—the very human struggles and victories—of the writing process

Indeed, as Vee reminded us in her lecture, the best faculty approach requires no technology whatsoever, only that human element that artificial intelligence cannot replicate: talk to your students. Ask them their own thoughts and fears about AI, other emerging technologies, and enduring creativity. Listen to what they say. Our human interactions remain—for the time being, at least—where language, thinking, and writing remain most truly alive.

Edward (ADL ‘64, MED ‘68) and Melinda Melton (FSM ‘66) Sadar established the Edward S. and Melinda Sadar Lecture in Writing in the Disciplines in Spring 2009 to showcase research and scholarship in writing across the disciplines, including the histories, cultures, and contexts of specific writing practices, writing instruction, and communicative technologies. The lecture is held annually.

Alumni News

In 2023, Mary Assad (’14 ) gave invited presentations in two fellow CWRU alums’ writing classes: Kristin Kondrlik‘s Professional and Technical Writing course (West Chester University) and Danielle Nielsen‘s Writing for the Web course (Murray State University). Mary’s talk, “Professional Writing in a Healthcare Setting,” focused on what it’s like to work as a medical writer, how to get started in the field, and how to craft health content that people can understand. Mary is entering her third year as a medical writer for Cleveland Clinic’s Health Library.

Lisa Chiu (’93) has an essay in Labor Of Love: A Literary Mama Anthology about the foods her mom prepared for her after she gave birth.

Laura Evers (’18 ) has an interview in The Georgia Review with poet and Cave Canem 2022 Prize winner Ariana Benson about her book Black Pastoral.

Alum (’16) Kristin E. Kondrlik’s article has been published in the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine Journal. This article represents an international perspective on celebrity, media and pandemics. Kondrlik worked with @wise.beck, @colleenderkatch, and Hua Wang on this idea, which grew out of a Twitter conversation during the pandemic.

Andrew Reichel (English BA with film concentration, ’17) is concluding his final year at New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Master of Arts Program. His most recent internship was with Electronic Arts Intermix in New York City.

Brad Ricca (’02) interviewed Henry Winkler at his Writers Center Stage appearance in November.

Brandy Schillace (’10) discussed her new novel—The Framed Women of Ardemore House—at the Orange Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

In February, Michelle Smith once again orchestrated her annual performance showcase Blax Museum.

On February 29th, Nadia Tarnawsky presented “Vesna Krasna: Beautiful Spring,” an exploration of Ukrainian spring songs at the Ukrainian History and Education Center.

Alum (’07) Christopher Urban‘s long short story / novelette “The Reading Lamp” was recently published at On the Seawall.

Alum (’10) Marie Vibbert’s latest story just came out at ClarkesworldRail Meat”–a professional thief tries her hand at being living ballast in space yacht races.

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