Archive for March, 2012

Literary Obituary: Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012


It’s an old-fashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”

— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege —

but there is something else:   the faith
of those despised and endangered

that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them

[Sources (1983)]

No short passage could sum up the vast and various intellectual work of poet/essayist Adrienne Rich, but that short piece from a long poem speaks to two important things about her. She was undeniably privileged, a child of east-coast Establishment ease and Radcliffe education, a Harvard faculty wife by her early 20s, author of tasteful poems that W.H. Auden praised in a pat-on-the-head way for “not telling fibs.” Nobody would have blamed her for hosting Cambridge cocktail parties for the rest of her long life.

Yet the choices she made, in the process of remaking herself personally and professionally again and again, did make her “despised and endangered,” and in no figurative sense. She left the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters behind, taking a teaching job in the radical open-access SEEK program of the City University of New York. She came out as a lesbian. She devoted almost a half-century to speaking out against misogyny, homophobia, racism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. In the process, she forged a kind of free-verse, long-sentence, highly rhetorical poetry that has been hugely influential on American verse. Her poems read like essays and her essays read like poems. All are topical and engagée; she called one of her volumes Leaflets because she saw no essential difference between poems and calls to action.

And, unashamedly, Adrienne Rich believed she had a “destiny”:

When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

["A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," 1971]

Somebody – it’s usually supposed to be Winston Churchill – once said that if you aren’t liberal when young you have no heart; if you aren’t conservative when older, you have no brain. Adrienne Rich, possessed of both, lived that trajectory in reverse. It’s not that her first few volumes of poems are especially reactionary, but they are decorous. Women’s half-lived lives feature in her books from the 1950s. One can imagine a poet retreating into half-silence after writing them, or flowering into madness (like Rich’s contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Rich instead did “very common” practical things, addressing what needed addressing with directness and sanity.

And as Rich aged, she just got more progressive. All her obituaries cite her 1997 refusal of a National Medal of Arts, when she wrote President Clinton that “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” That’s the Clinton administration, mind you, the one so many progressives now look back on with nostalgia – the administration that Maya Angelou, no closet conservative, had memorably ushered in. But in Rich’s eyes, Clinton failed to pass a healthcare bill, dismantled welfare programs, capitulated on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” waged drone wars against ill-specified enemies, and made a mess of the Kyoto environmental accords. In fact, one could argue that one of the Clinton Administration’s most progressive positions was its determination to honor Adrienne Rich. She wouldn’t help them out.

Many of Rich’s poems read like essays, I’ve said, and her essays are probably the most vital part of her literary legacy. In “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), she argued that

“Political” poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups . . . The mood of isolation, self-pity, and self-imitation that pervades “nonpolitical” poetry suggests that a profound change in masculine consciousness will have to precede any new male poetic—or other—inspiration. The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction. As women, we have our work cut out for us.

Forty years ago, poetry was seen by academic critics almost entirely in aestheticist terms. If it is now seen almost entirely in rhetorical and political terms, we owe that more to Adrienne Rich than to any other single critic.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 29th, 2012 |4 Comments »

What’s in YOUR brain-attic?

When it comes to what you put into your skull, what kind of Sherlockian are you?

In A Study in Scarlet, the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about the detective and his loyal sidekick, Dr. Watson is trying to figure out just what kind of roommate he has picked up while recuperating from his recent military service overseas. (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” Holmes famously remarks upon being introduced, in an exchange that is gently parodied in the 1986 Disney movie The Great Mouse Detective.) While studying Holmes’s eclectic intellectual pursuits in hopes of enlightenment, Watson is stunned when his acquaintance not only claims ignorance about the fact that the Earth orbits the sun but then actually expresses his intention of forgetting his new knowledge:

“ ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilled workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. . . . [Y]ou say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.’ ” (The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1, 154)

(In defense of the supposedly astronomically ignorant Holmes, editor William S. Baring-Gould argues that the detective is actually pulling Watson’s leg with his remarks about the solar system.)

The curious thing is that toward the end of his career, Holmes implicitly contradicts his utilitarian position. In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” he solves the mysterious death of a science instructor by recalling an odd phrase used by a nature writer in describing a jellyfish. “I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles,” Holmes remarks (789). Apparently by this point in his life, the detective has found that extracurricular reading has its rewards.

Academia encourages, and sometimes actually demands, the approach of the younger Holmes. Reading and other mental activities are the servants of scholarship, and if something doesn’t “make a pennyworth of difference” to one’s work as a teacher or academic writer, to the wayside it goes. Detective fiction? Who has time for that when there’s a journal article waiting?

But I’ve always had an instinctive sympathy for the older Holmes – the one who, instead of reading yet another treatise on cigar ashes or the latest lurid testimony from the assizes, decides to kick back with some nature writing that later enables him to deduce that a fatality should be laid at the feet (or rather tentacles) of Cyanea capillata rather than a jealous romantic rival.

Part of this harks back to my longtime vocation as a copy editor, a job in which possessing knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep is quite advantageous. (You never know when the difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Church might be important.) But it’s also a personality thing that reaches back into my youth. When news broke recently that Encyclopaedia Britannica would no longer be publishing a printed edition, I was struck by the number of Facebook acquaintances who confessed that they (like me) had spent their childhood leisure hours leafing through the family encyclopedia, omnivorously snapping up whatever trifles of knowledge they might find there.

Clearly, the sort of single-minded, narrowly focused dedication that Holmes advocates in A Study in Scarlet is necessary to scholarly success. (Commenting on the detective’s familiarity with what we would call true-crime literature, Watson bemusedly notes, “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century” [156]). But I would argue that the broad approach has its rewards as well. (In fact, some of these thoughts, along with the Sherlock Holmes references, formed part of one of my first graduate school papers in the summer of 2009.) One of our most important abilities is that of making connections between ideas, and the wider the intellectual net has been cast – inside and outside one’s specific academic focus – the more connections can be made, to the benefit of students as well as fellow scholars.

Perhaps I am preaching to the academic choir; perhaps we all know the importance of occasionally purchasing the oddball intellectual tool on the off chance that it may prove handy someday. But if not, consider the possible value of having one corner of that rigorously ordered mental attic dedicated to a little creative chaos. The younger Sherlock Holmes might raise an acerbic eyebrow, but the older one might look up from his retirement beekeeping and give you an approving nod.

Published in:Alan Cochrum |on March 26th, 2012 |1 Comment »

The fraud police are coming: Are you prepared?

Every night I jam an aluminum folding chair against the front door of my apartment. It gives me piece of mind that, if all the imaginary burglars, murderers, and rapists do come to get me, either they will be unable to enter or the resultant clanging of the chair as they burst through the door will buy me a few extra seconds to … call for help? make sure I’m wearing my cute PJ’s? tap into my undiscovered ass-kicking ninja skills? Honestly, I’ve never thought through this scenario very carefully. But still, every night, in order to ensure a restful night’s sleep, I set up my very high-tech and well-thought-out security system. What does this have to do with “meta-professional” matters in the English department? Such defenses against imaginary criminals lead me to think about how I cope with anxiety, including that which comes from my position as both an English graduate student and as a GTA. It also brings to mind another imaginary group of bogeymen that my folding chair seems ultimately powerless to stop: the fraud police.

When speaking at the New England Institute of Art’s commencement on April 23, 2011, Amanda Palmer talked at length about a group of people she calls the fraud police:

The fraud police are this imaginary, terrifying force of experts and real grown-ups who don’t exist and who come knocking on your door at 3am, when you least expect it, saying, “Fraud police. We’ve been watching you and we have evidence that you have no idea what you are doing. And you stand accused of the crime of completely making shit up as you go along. You do not actually deserve your job and we’re taking everything away. And we are telling everybody.”

Even though Palmer was talking to a room full of arts majors, not English graduate students, I think the basic concept still applies. The fraud police have haunted and harassed me off and on ever since I first started graduate school in Summer 2009, although I hadn’t come to identify them by that name yet.

But, if I am to believe Calvin Thomas’s article “Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English,” it’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world if I don’t know what I’m doing. By insisting that “you must not know what you are doing, it is imperative that you not know what you are doing, that you never know what you are doing, or else you will never do it well” (20), Thomas gives graduate students a seemingly counterintuitive message that is oddly one of the more comforting messages I’ve heard in the last 2 ½ years. If only he hadn’t followed that insight with this gem: “if you are even capable of imagining doing something else, doing anything else, you probably shouldn’t be doing graduate studies in English” (20). Maybe it’s just me, but I have a rather vivid imagination and can imagine myself working any number of different jobs. In fact, this irritating fault of my imagination features prominently when the fraud police come knocking at my door asking, “Why did you pick English? You do know that you are pretty good at that math and science stuff.” But despite the vivid imagination and the possibility of other vague career opportunities, I keep finding myself coming back to English, first for a Master’s degree, now for my PhD. This leads me to believe that on some level, if I wasn’t cut out for this, I would’ve bailed already. Every time I bemoan grading 48 essays or spend the weekend working two twelve-hour days to catch up on coursework, I realize that I don’t actually mind that much, that I possess that kind of masochistic streak Thomas argues might be necessary to do this kind of work. However, this moment of clarity is only a brief stop in the seemingly continuous cycle of doubt. The fraud police do keep to a schedule, you know.

Confrontations with the fraud police can become immensely more complicated in the case of GTAs where the concerns and anxieties of student and teacher converge. For my part, I was thrown into teaching composition with what felt like very little preparation; I have been “guilty of the crime of completely making shit up” so many times I’ve lost count. And, while this has largely turned out OK, I have wondered how it affects my students. In a recent issue of CCC, Dylan B. Dryer reports on a study he did of novice GTAs and how those GTAs “expressed considerable anxiety about—and frequent hostility toward—academic writing conventions and then projected disconcertingly reductive versions of these anxieties and writing practices onto students” (421). Dryer rightly points out the conundrum many GTAs face as “find their writing confidence and competence undermined in one set of classrooms and faculty offices while being positioned (and positioning themselves) as writing experts in another set of classrooms and in their own offices” (425). As a graduate student, I constantly question everything I know and frequently feel as though my brain is threatening mutiny.

But three days a week, I have to try to set that aside and become an authority (of sorts) about writing for my students. I’m not that good an actor, and I hate being disingenuous with them, so I’m sure my students pick up on this incongruity. In fact, I know they do because I talk about my experience writing each of the ENGL 1301 essays and I am all too happy to agree with students when they independently voice the exact same problems with the essays that I experienced. In proposing a possible course of action to solve this problem, Dryer argues that GTAs should be trained to make “more constructive use of the dissonance” they experience in the dual role of teacher and student and the kinds of selves or identities that are produced in those roles (421).  Obviously I can’t tell my students, “You’re right, this essay sucks. Don’t write it.” Instead, I try to use myself as a model, not an authority, on how to deal with the hostility towards or misgivings about academic writing conventions.

At the end of her speech on the fraud police, Palmer assures the new graduates that “You will get to a point where the fraud police will come knocking. And you will open the door. And when they accuse you of being a fraud, you will honestly be able to say, ‘You’re right. I still have no idea what I’m actually doing. I am making this shit up as I go along, but it is working out just fine.’” Making productive use of dissonance doesn’t mean hiding from the fraud police or making them go away entirely. It means acknowledging and embracing the anxiety and uncertainty as a productive force, thereby lessening its detrimental impact. It also means implementing strategies that are the equivalent of my aluminum folding chair in that, while they do serve a certain practical function, they are mainly there for reassurance that everything will work out just fine.

Published in:Julie McCown |on March 19th, 2012 |1 Comment »

This is not Breaking Bad.

Albuquerque. Downtown Hyatt Regency. Thirteenth floor. Friday, mid-morning. Vacuum in background. Elevator bell down the hall. Door handle of 1306 blinks green twice. Door opens. Light creeps beyond the barrier of thick curtains. Message indicator blinks red on phone. Debris covers the bed.

This is not, unfortunately, a scene from Breaking Bad. Walter White is not holding the room key, Jesse Pinkman is not eating Funions on the bed, and Gus Fring is not waiting on the end of the telephone line. Instead, I am the one opening the door in New Mexico three weeks ago. I am there to present a paper, not manufacture narcotics, and my 24 hours in Albuquerque are about as far from the television show as you can imagine (minus the fried chicken).

The city played host to the 33rd annual meeting of the Southwest Texas PCA/ACA Conference. I arrived towards the end, on a Friday morning, because I had class (as teacher and as student) the day before. I got to the hotel in-between sessions, and luckily they let me check into my room early. After dropping my bags off, I went through my normal routine: 1) Check-in at the registration table, where I receive the brightly-colored monogrammed tote bag (this one was orange) and politely accept my complimentary coffee mug/travel thermos/paperweight/etc; 2) Make my way past the book displays, where I find the perfect distance between the wall and the table where I can see the titles to the books while still looking just disinterested enough for the sellers to leave me be; 3) Check out the snack machines/hotel amenities; and 4) Return to my room to assess my television options for my stay.

Back in the room I spend some time grading Reading Responses for my 1302 class and scout my options for lunch. I also browse through the conference program (this time it’s on a flash-drive rather than paper) and try and figure out which session(s) I will try and make it to that afternoon. I find a couple that sound interesting and make my way to the free lunch in the Grand Pavilion. After lunch I grade a few more Reading Responses and then head to Session 3076: “Sports 1: Mediasport” in Grand Pavilion IV. Here are the titles of the papers: “American Sports Stories: from the Weight Room to the Classroom”; “Sports in the Twitter Age”; and “Drinkin and Drivin: The Complicated Relationship between NASCAR and Alcohol.” I show up a few minutes early–to get a prime seat, of course–and the session begins a few minutes late. Grand total attendance: 4. This includes the presenters. One of the presenters has apparently had to cancel, so the panel and crowd are equal at 2 apiece. In a crowded session, the pressure is on the presenter. In “Sports 1: Mediasport,” the pressure was on the audience. I have never listened so closely to a presentation or tried harder to think of something interesting to say. My fellow audience-member and I–after moving up a few rows once we realized it was just us–were able to perform quite well, and by the end of the session there had actually been some rather interesting and productive conversations. I learned a few things and was able to provide some helpful feedback. I went back to my room with that good, academically-productive feeling.

My session was the next morning: “Cormac McCarthy I” in Sendero Ballroom III. The titles: “Lester Ballard and His Discontents: Understanding Cormac McCarthy’s Grotesque Hero through Freud” (this was mine); “No Country for Lawyers: Cormac McCarthy’s Legal Landscapes”; and “Post 9/11 and Post 2008: How to Read Cormac McCarthy and the American Dream.” Luckily my session had a much bigger crowd than “Sport 1: Mediasport” (probably 10-15, thanks to McCarthy’s popularity), and things went well. My fellow presenters were well-read and intelligent, and their papers inspired some great conversations. I also received some interesting questions and comments from the crowd, and after staying for “Cormac McCarthy II,” I again left with that good ol’ feeling of productivity.

This was my fifth or sixth conference experience, and they have all been unique in certain ways, while also strangely similar. And while the good feelings I get from presenting my work are important, I find myself with some questions about the conference system. I remember at one conference (I think it was the College English Association National Conference in San Antonio) being told rather stringently while standing at the registration table to do one thing: attend sessions. This was not a “I hope you enjoy your time at CEA” type of message; this was an “If you don’t attend sessions you are committing academic sin and are not here for the right reasons” message. And after going to more and more, I understand this push: how many sessions are like “Sport I: Mediasport”? How many presenters find themselves reading their work to one or two people, including their fellow presenters? What can be done about this? Is this, in fact, a problem? Where are all of the conference-goers if not attending the actual conference? Seeing the town (which seems a stretch considering some of the destinations)? Chatting with friends? Watching Breaking Bad in their hotel rooms? Maybe I’m just going to the wrong conferences.

I personally have experienced this audience-void before, and I remember being unsure about how I felt. On one hand, who cared how many people heard me? I still got to put it on my CV, and I still had the opportunity to present my work to a couple of people that seemed genuinely interested. On the other hand, what’s the point of reading my work if noone is listening? I always tell my students to join the larger conversation when they make an argument, because without that they have no reason to speak. If noone else wants to hear about Larry McMurty and small-town Texas, or Paul Auster and epistemology (two previous papers I presented to rather minimal crowds), then what purpose am I serving? Why pay for the hotel room, flight, rental car, registration, food, etc.? Is it worth the line on my CV?

Yes, it’s worth it. At least for me it is. I think that as English Department people we have already accepted the fact that not many people are going to be in the audience whenever we speak. We know that most people don’t care about what we care about, and most people aren’t interested in what we are interested in (At least that’s how I feel around most of my family, friends, neighbors, etc.) But we don’t write our papers and give our talks because most people want to hear them; we do these things for the few that do. We do it because the conversations that take place between 4 people in “Sport I: Mediasport” are, for us, valuable and worthwhile.

So I will continue to go to my one conference a year and read my paper to a small crowd of fellow _______-lovers (fill in the blank with whatever author, book, tv show, genre, etc. that you are interested in). And I will continue to explain to my roommates: Yes, I do actually fly across the country to listen to people I don’t know read papers I didn’t write about books I haven’t read. And I will continue to go to sessions like “Sport I: Mediasport,” “Southern Literature III: Flannery O’Connor,” and “Grateful Dead 13: Presenting the Dead, Historically and Artifactually”; not because it’s as exciting as watching Breaking Bad, because it’s certainly not; not because of the free monogrammed tote bags, which are slowly filling up my closet space; and not because I look forward to being another day or two behind my schoolwork; but because I believe it is worthwhile. If I didn’t, then why would I be doing what I’m doing with my life?

Of course, the CV line doesn’t hurt either.

Published in:Todd Womble |on March 5th, 2012 |4 Comments »