Archive for the 'Desiree Henderson' Category

Playing Favorites

In the previous post, Jackie Stodnick stated that the most common question she’s asked is how she ended up working on what she works on. I’m rarely asked this question — probably because I work on American literature — and I’m American — and women’s writing — and I’m a woman. I think people presume that my identity perfectly explains my area of expertise — and there may be some truth to that.

Instead, the question I am more likely to be asked is, “Who is your favorite writer?”

This is a perplexing question and, I think most literary scholars or avid readers would agree, unanswerable. To use a food analogy: Being asked to choose one favorite writer is like being asked to pick one kind of food that you will eat at every meal and enjoy equally under any circumstance. What food could possibly satisfy those criteria? Even something as delectable as hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies — which are great under most circumstances — would become revolting if that is all you ever ate. Even something hearty and good-for-you like oatmeal — which I dutifully eat for breakfast every day — would not be satisfying as lunch and dinner. So too with literature: one needs a well-rounded diet with some vitamin-rich, intellectually stimulating fare, as well as some fun, sugary treats thrown in.

I have favorite authors and works in several categories:

FAVORITES TO TEACH: There are numerous works that I love to teach that are not necessarily works I would pick up and read for personal enjoyment. For example, I love teaching Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. In fact, I’ve never met an American literature prof who didn’t enjoy teaching Rowlandson because her account of her captivity by Indians is so fascinating and rich, and enables the kinds of discussions about gender, race, religion, colonization, and self-construction that we teachers want our students to have. But, I can say I thoroughly enjoy teaching Rowlandson while simultaneously acknowledging that her prose is challenging and often dry, that I would never carry a copy of her narrative to the beach with me, and that I profoundly disagree with many of her value-laden conclusions about her experiences. Is she still a favorite? Absolutely.

FAVORITES TO WRITE ABOUT: There are works of literature that I write about and read scholarship on that, again, would not constitute pleasure reading for me. For example, I’ve written before about my current passion for the eighteenth-century American novelist Susanna Rowson. I’ve spent the past few years working on Rowson, reading a large number of her works, and the more I learn about her, the more fascinating and significant she seems to me. In this case, there is some overlap with the previous category, because I also love teaching Rowson — as many of my students can attest. But, there are other writers that I have published on (or will publish on) who I have never taught and probably will never teach — but they still constitute “favorite” topics for rumination and reflection.

FAVORITES TO READ FOR PLEASURE: Yes, I prefer some authors and books but, even here I would find it almost impossible to pick one — or even to pick one category. I read contemporary fiction, young adult fiction, sci-fi/fantasy novels, mysteries, graphic novels and comic books, blogs and online publications, and even some poetry. I enjoy all these genres for different reasons at different times — so “favorites” just doesn’t work for me.

Sometimes the “favorite writer” question is posed in the form of the desert island scenario: “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one book, what would it be?” This question conjures up terror in my heart — not just because I would be alone and likely starving to death on a desert island — but because of the prospect of ONLY ONE BOOK. All I can say is: I hope it would be long and complex, to keep me occupied as I waited for help to arrive.

How do you answer the “favorite author” question?

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on April 28th, 2010 |6 Comments »

News Flash! Neuro Lit Crit is IT!


I’m always a little wary when the media declares the next new thing in literary criticism. After all, journalists have delighted in the past in telling us that 1) literature is dead and 2) literary theory is really dead. Most of the major newspapers enjoy regaling their readers with articles that mock the absurdities of contemporary literary criticism — for example, in their annual “Can you believe they crazy things that professors talk about?” coverage of the Modern Language Association conference.  The general tone of such articles is: since we already know that literature is out of touch with our fast-paced digital age, the study of literature is the epitome of arcane self-indulgence.

Now, the NY Times tells us that that the newest “new thing” in lit crit is … well, I’ll let the journalist describe it:

Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

And, why have scholars of literature turned towards neurology and cognitive science as tools for literary analysis?

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.

This is a rather cynical argument, in my opinion. While there may, in fact, be scholars seeking to tap into the untold wealth of the sciences, to view this as the primary motivator for “science studies” doesn’t do justice to the important avenues opened up by literary and cultural studies scholars who are engaging with the material, the bodily, the biological. (I’m thinking here of the brilliant work of our colleagues Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman in their Material Feminisms; they might be surprised to know that they are due a cut of the UTA Biology Department’s budget.)

Nor is everyone embracing the idea that Neuro Lit Crit is going to save the humanities. In a series of articles titled “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?,” scholars from several disciplines weigh in on this new approach. Of course, many of the commentators take issue, as I do here, with the “one ring to rule them all” conceit of the question itself. I really hope that science is not “the” cure for the problems facing the humanities these days — because then it wouldn’t be the humanities, would it?

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on April 12th, 2010 |1 Comment »

Bad Books

Recently The American Book Review released an article titled “Top 40 Bad Books,” in which a host of literary critics were invited to identify “bad books.”

Some of the contributors went with the obvious: Bonnie Wheeler (SMU) listed Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – which seems just a little bit too easy. Marc Bousquet (Santa Clara) listed David Horowitz’s right-wing screed, One Party Classroom, and Liedeke Plate (Radboud Universiteit) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – and, again, the reader wonders whether it is even worth the ink to identify these works as bad?

Other choices appeared to deliberately court controversy: Christine Granados (Texas A&M) named Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses; Kim Herzinger (U Houston-Victoria) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Tom LeClair (U Cincinnati) called Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby the “worst novel in American literature.” Shocking stuff.

(If you are wondering why there are so many professors from Texas represented on the list – I was too.)

As a scholar whose stock-in-trade are authors and books that have traditionally been deemed “bad” – as most early American women writers and their writings were – and conscious of the fact that literary “goodness” and “badness” are historically contingent categories usually employed to keep marginalized individuals, voices, and opinions on the margins, ABR’s entire project struck me as suspect. Most of the scholars and writers who participated in the experiment were as suspicious as I am – and many of them speak to precisely these issues: several celebrate the “bad book” as a culturally meaningful artifact and a great object of study in the classroom; others call into question whether “good” and “bad” even have any meaning in our pluralistic society. The article is worth reading because it offers such a wide range of responses to the issue of literary “badness.”

Having stated that I think the categories are vexed, the terms virtually meaningless, and the exercise contradictory to the work I do in my classes and writing … I’m plunging in …

Here’s my nomination for a really bad book – a book I couldn’t stand – a book about which I can talk extensively, detailing all the reasons I think it stinks: Geraldine Brooks’ March.

Is this the only bad book I could name? No.

Is this the worst book ever? Not even close.

Is there something about passionately disliking a book, that makes a reader wed to it in a way that is not unlike the relationship a reader develops with a really good book? Absolutely.

So, go ahead: name a bad book. You know you want to.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on March 29th, 2010 |5 Comments »

Bidding for Books

This weekend I had a new experience: bidding on Ebay for an antiquarian book. One of my graduate students informed me that a book by the eighteenth-century author, Susanna Rowson, was for sale on Ebay. I was amazed! True, Rowson is not well known outside of academic circles and, as a result, does not have the cultural cache of her contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, or others. But, surely an eighteenth-century book – any eighteenth-century book! – has a more rarified existence than to be bid upon by the likes of me.


While I have read many eighteenth-century books – and handled a few in special collections or archives – I don’t own any. (I only own modern reproductions.) Nor do I have much experience with antiquarian books or booksellers, despite the historical focus of my research. This is another piece of evidence to support Tim Morris’ recent statement that being a professor is a working-class job: once upon a time, there may have been academics who could afford to indulge in collecting old books, but I suspect those days are over. Few of us have those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with leather-bound, antique books that Hollywood likes to portray as the norm for academics. (Not to mention the smoking jackets, pipes, and personal valets that seem to go along with them.)

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist the chance to possess a book by an author who I’ve been studying intently over the past few years. So, with equal parts trepidation and excitement, I entered the bidding …

Unfortunately, this anecdote does not end triumphantly for me. I was significantly outbid and will not be the owner of Rowson’s Mentoria, circa 1794. However, the selling price of $400 – while too rich for me – is surprisingly low, compared to other books from the same time period. (The same Ebay bookseller sells many works from the same period or earlier, ranging from $9,000 to $35,000.)

This experience made me think, though, about the curious gap in our culture between those who study antiquarian books and those who buy/own them. While it may be true that the new owner of Rowson’s Mentoria is another Rowson-mad scholar like myself (and I certainly hope s/he is!), I am willing to bet that it was instead a collector, maybe even another bookseller, who doesn’t really know who she was or why many of us are so inspired by her life and writing. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a scholarship that enabled scholars to “own” (permanently or temporarily) the materials on which they work? The system would be similar to the one in place for virtuoso violinists that sponsors their access to exquisite Stradivariuses. As I understand it, this system is built around the premise that a talented violinist deserves the best possible instrument on which to play, and that the violin itself deserves to be played – indeed, was designed to be played – by the most talented musician that can be found. Not to belabor this comparison, but surely books are similar? Don’t they deserve to be in the possession of the readers who will really appreciate them?

Or … I guess that is what libraries are for.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on March 9th, 2010 |2 Comments »

What’s in a Name?


Your career choice, place of residence, and spouse, apparently.

I recently ran across the phenomenon known as “egotism” or sometimes “implicit egotism,” which is the statistical probability that the letters that form your name will in some way correspond to or predict what career you go into, where you will live, and who you will choose for a spouse or partner.

In a thumbnail: People named Dennis or Denise are very likely to become dentists. Dennis and Denise are also likely to live in Denver. And, they are also likely to marry someone with a surname that begins with the same letter as their own: a Smith would more likely marry a Sanchez than a Zelig.

The research on egotism was begun by U Buffalo psychologist Brett Pelham and you can read more about him on his homepage, as well as reading the initial study, which was published in 2002. Previous scholarship had posited the “name letter effect,” which holds that people have positive associations with the letters in their own names. Subsequent scholarship has pursued the implications for egotism on other “life choices,” such as a recent study that showed that names influenced people’s responses to disaster and charitable giving: someone named Katherine was more likely to donate to a Hurricane Katrina fund, for example.

This is all very interesting to those of us who study language and literature and who find ourselves often trying to make the case for the power of language and the constructedness of reality or identity. In ENGL 2350, I often struggle to explain the structuralist/deconstructionist idea that there is no reality outside of language/the text — my skeptical students are confident that they know reality as well as the difference between what’s real and what’s written, and they have a hard time embracing the proposition that what they know is shaped by the language system in which they exist. Maybe Pelham’s statistics can serve as more persuasive fodder for a discussion of these issues?

Of course, there are many out there who will recoil from the idea of name as destiny. In fact, we would scoff at a creative writer who constructed a character named Dennis who was a dentist who lived in Denver. What a lack of imagination!, we would say.

So what do you think? Has your name determined your life choices?

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on February 22nd, 2010 |3 Comments »

English Majors vs. Park Benches, or Further Adventures in Myth Busting

In continuing the discussion initiated by Laura Kopchick on “myths” surrounding literary studies and writing, I turn my attention to myths about English majors.

English majors are, of course, the butt of many jokes in contemporary culture.

Q: What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench?

A: A park bench can support a family of four.

Storyteller Garrison Keillor has made jokes about English majors a staple in his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, including a running bit about the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM). (You can get a taste of the humor here, sign up for the Facebook group here, and buy some paraphernalia here.)

Jim Harrison’s 2008 novel, The English Major, recounts the story of a 60-year-old former English major, then English teacher, then farmer, who embarks upon a cross-country trip in search of the meaning of life.

The Washington Post review of the book states: “In one of the more ludicrous scenes, Cliff meets a 21-year-old waitress who agrees to take off her clothes for $300, if he’ll keep a distance of at least 10 feet. ‘You might be a farmer,’ she says, ‘but I bet big money you were an English major in college.’” Apparently even in works of literature, English majors get played for laughs.*

The two most common myths – and fodder for humor – about English majors are, I believe:

English majors are only trained how to lay around and read novels, and therefore have no marketable skills and will never get good (read: high paying) jobs.

English majors are shy, socially inept individuals with few actual life experiences or any measure of street savvy, who tend to live only in their minds or the books they read, essentially disconnected from reality.

The first myth is easy enough to discount. There have been many studies about the fact that the critical thinking and careful reading skills that are cultivated in English classes (and, liberal arts courses more generally) are precisely the ones that employers look for. English majors reportedly do remarkably well in both law school and medical school because they know how to pay attention to details and put information in context. As digital media continues to expand as a viable career option, the composition, technical, and technological abilities that English majors have will also continue to be valued and sought out. And, while the stereotype is that English majors “only” have the skills to become teachers, being a teacher and particularly an English teacher is still a personally rewarding and socially important job to hold (says this English teacher).

It is true that, for the most part and against pressure from college administrations, English departments tend to treat the study of literature, composition, rhetoric, creative writing, and digital media as subjects in and of themselves – rather than skill sets designed to guarantee that students get jobs. But, that doesn’t mean the skills aren’t gained and then implemented in post-graduate employment. (Anyone interested in learning more about what UTA English majors do upon graduation should attend an event hosted by the English Department in Spring 2010, featuring some of our alums discussing their employment experiences.)

As for the myth that English majors are people whose inner lives are shaped by their reading and writing, who stand at a bit of a distance from the real world, and perhaps are more likely to relate to the characters in books than the people around them … well, I have to admit that I think it is a myth with some basis in reality. However, I’m not sure it is a problem. Instead, I believe that being capable of entering into a fictional world, or appreciating the complex imagery of a poem, or authoring your own original work of fiction or poetry, or identifying social themes in film, television, or theater … or any of the other abilities that English majors develop over the course of their undergraduate careers, bring their own rewards, not necessarily ones recognized by our contemporary society, but ones that the writers that we love have been celebrating and cultivating for centuries.

* The review is quoted on the Amazon page for the novel.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on February 7th, 2010 |2 Comments »

Thanksgiving Poem


This is Thanksgiving Week — and what better than a poem that inspires the deepest gratitude? This is one of my favorite poems and certainly a poem of thanksgiving, but it describes a very simple, quiet, solitary day — a day very unlike the busy, noisy, bustling one that most of us will be having this Thursday. Yet, in the midst of the feast, between football games or puzzles, during all the tumult of laughter and conversation, take a minute to remember that it could have been otherwise.

Otherwise by Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on November 22nd, 2009 |No Comments »

Libraries: An Argument

Suzanne E. Thorin, dean of libraries at Syracuse University, made the news last week when she declared “Let’s face it: the library, as a place, is dead … Kaput. Finito. And we need to move on to a new concept of what the academic library is.”

Thorin made these startling comments at the 2009 Educause Conference, sparking a lively debate amongst the conference participants that has now been taken up across the web, as many commentators have begun to weigh in on the question of whether the library is, in fact, dead — or whether there is still life in the old brick-and-mortar receptacle for books.

It seems to me that there are many excellent and compelling arguments to be made for why libraries are still necessary, if not urgent. However, I want to enter into this debate by putting forward what is probably the least substantive argument in favor of the continuing value of libraries: aesthetics.

I love libraries. I think they are beautiful, aesthetically pleasing places. I can think of few human-designed environments that are as appealing as libraries. There is something about the balance between symmetry and order, and the wide diversity of textures, colors, physical and spatial forms that produces, in me, a sense of serenity and reflection. I have spent many hours in many libraries – some ultra modern, built out of steel and glass – others historic, located in old, restored brick or stone buildings. I’ve been in libraries that were kept too cold, or were too loud, or were disorganized, or too dark, or that looked like they could be the setting for a serial killer flick. But, the ones I remember the most are the beautiful libraries – those with large windows, big tables, comfy chairs, and that certain indefinable feeling that comes from being surrounded by more knowledge than one person can contain.

My favorite library is the American Antiquarian Society, which is an elegant and lovely space, with the clearest light and sense of openness that I ever have encountered in a historic library. (Photo: the AAS Reading Room)


Of course, it helps that the AAS is one of the most important archives of early American history and literature (my particular scholarly interest) and that the librarians there are incredibly helpful and kind. My days doing research there were a delight on a number of levels, not the least of which was the opportunity to just sit and soak up the environment.

I’m not the only one who takes their love of libraries to the level of aesthetic appreciation. The wonderful website, Librophiliac Love Letter: A Compendium of Beautiful Libraries, includes pictures of some of the most extraordinary, breath-taking libraries that I have ever seen, and only dream of seeing in real life.

So, in rebuttal to Dr. Thornin’s rather too hasty declaration of the death of libraries: What’s your favorite library, and why?

– Desiree Henderson

Photo source: HistoryGradGuy on Flicker

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on November 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »

2009 Book Awards Roundup

‘Tis the season for book awards. Below is a list of the major awards, mostly for literatures in English. Where winners have been announced, I’ve included them, but the lists of award finalists are great places to find new avenues for reading.

• American Booksellers Association: Indies Choice Book Awards

Caldecott Medal

2009 Winner: The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Commonwealth Writer’s Prize

2009 Regional Winners: Mandla Langa, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Africa); Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault (Canada and Caribbean); Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (Europe and South Asia); Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (East Asia and South Pacific)
• Man Asian Literary Prize: 2009 Finalists
2009 Winner: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
• National Book Award: 2009 Finalists
2009 winner: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (HarperCollins)

Nobel Prize

2009 winner: Herta Müller (See Tim Morris’ previous post on this selection.)

Pen/Faulkner Award

2009 winner: Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

Pulitzer Prize

2009 winners: Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (Fiction); Lynn Nottage, Ruined (Drama); W.S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius (Poetry)

And, while not strictly a book award, I must add a link to one of my favorite sites: The Book Design Review, which surveys book covers and overall design. While they haven’t yet listed the best for 2009, you can examine the favorites for 2008 — amazing works of art!

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on October 26th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Your Brain On Literature


Last week the New York Times reported a recent study on brain function published in the journal Psychological Science. This study, conducted by Travis Proulx from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven J. Heine from University of British Columbia, sought to examine how the brain responds to unusual, surprising, or disturbing experiences – the kind of experiences that would provoke sensations of shock, fear, or unease.

According to the New York Times,

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

Proulx and Heine’s research suggests that the brain functions, in part, by turning disorder and danger into order and normalcy.

The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

What’s interesting about this study was the mechanism that Proulx and Heine employed to test their theories. If you want to replicate, in a controlled environment, the experience of being destabilized, disturbed, shaken out of your sense of normalcy and complacency, where do you turn? To literature, of course.

Proulx and Heine’s study consisted of having college students read a particularly strange and challenging story, Franz Kafka’s “The Country Doctor.”

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.
The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.
But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

In other words, as Proulx and Heine concluded, the experience of reading Kafka’s absurdist story had primed the student’s brains to make intuitive connections that would re-establish order to their worlds. (The researchers themselves wrote the “control story,” which they describe as a conventional version of Kafka’s story. Both stories are available online at:

Proulx and Heine’s findings will come as no surprise to students and teachers of literature, or to passionate readers and writers more generally. We have all had the experience of reading something that caught us completely by surprise, stirred us up, or awakened us to new ideas. But, I must quibble with two aspects of this study, based purely upon my own experience:

1) I disagree with the idea that it is only the “absurd” that would have this effect. Sometimes it does require works like Kafka’s or those by other modernist and post-modernist writers, to test our sense of the norms of literature and life. But, I am confident, it is not only these works that cause the reading brain to re-orient itself, to look for new patterns and meanings that were not visible before.

2) I also question the researchers’ conclusion that exposure to surprising, terrifying experiences inevitably causes us to recoil into a position of self-defense in which we “cling to [our] personal biases more tightly.” Rather, it seems equally probable (and, again, true to my own experience) that the reader would find something appealing or seductive about that which shocks and challenges. How else, I wonder, would we continue to develop new literatures, new forms of artistic expression, new identities, lifestyles, and politics, if we only retreated to the known when confronted with the unknown?

So, embrace the absurd, read something new, and watch those neural pathways grow.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on October 11th, 2009 |No Comments »