Later this year, I'll give a paper at the annual convention of the American Political Science Association. For someone who is not a political scientist, this is a bizarre prospect -- like one of those dreams in which you must take a final exam in a course you’ve never actually taken. My topic involves tracing one strand of neoconservative ideology back to its source in a far-flung mutation of Marxist theory. I’ve been doing the research for about 20 years, off and on, without ever quite supposing that it would culminate in a presentation in front of a bunch of professors.
Then again, the matter is sufficiently esoteric that "bunch" may not be the exact word. Chances are there will be more than enough chairs.
In any case, a mass of old books and photocopies are now stacked up, to an unstable height, on my desk. And on top of the pile there is a notebook. The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two ... all will be written there, in longhand.
My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. (It’s probably comparable to finding out that your doctor grows blood-sucking leeches in the basement.) Like an interest in the fine distinctions made by the ancient Trotskyists, my writing habits are idiosyncratic, anachronistic, and more or less impossible to justify in terms making any sense given the state of 21st century American culture.
Yet the rut is now too deep to crawl out of it. I have my reasons. Or perhaps, to be more precise, my rationalizations. Not that they persuade anybody else, of course. It’s particularly awkward when an editor asks for a progress report. There is a certain uncomfortable silence when I say, "Well, the notebook is almost full...."
Nowadays, the word "text" connotes an artifact that is "always already" digitized -- something to be fed into a streamlined apparatus for circulating information. But the word itself comes from the Latin root texere, to weave, as in "textile."
In my own experience, though, writing is not so much the crafting of paragraphs as it is a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. The process is messy and not terribly efficient.
Writing this column twice a week, for example, is a matter of juggling two legal pads of different sizes, plus anywhere from one to three notebooks. It is easy to detect which parts were written with a cup of coffee in one hand: The sentences are long, the handwriting spiky, the parentheses nestled one inside the next. By its penultimate phase, the draft is a puzzling array of arrows, boxes, Venn diagrams, and Roman numerals. (Also, as the case may require, whatever lower-case letters of the Greek alphabet I can still remember.)
The effect resembles the flow chart for a primitive computer program to be run on a wheezy old tube-driven UNIVAC.
Only as the deadline approaches is anything actually typed up, in a kind of spastic marathon. By that point, a certain passage from Walter Benjamin always comes to mind: "The work is a death mask of its conception."
Actually, with hindsight, it’s easy to see that Benjamin got me started on this erratic and circuitous course. In a collection of essays and fragments called One Way Street, he offers a set of aphorisms on writing, including the one just quoted. (First published in 1926, it is now available in the first of a four-volume edition of his work in English published by Harvard University Press.)
"Let no thought pass incognito," Benjamin insisted, "and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens." (A line that became more poignant after the Nazis came to power, forcing Benjamin to spend the rest of his life in exile.)
But one passage in particular made a huge impression on me. "Avoid haphazard writing materials," admonished Benjamin. "A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensible."
As if to clinch it, there is an interview that Roland Barthes gave in 1973 that seems to ratify Benjamin’s point. Under the title "An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments," it was reprinted posthumously in a collection called The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, published by the University of California Press.
In a gesture very typical of his structuralist penchant for creating categorical distinctions, Barthes notes that his own writing process goes through two stages: "First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse," said Barthes. It was a phase of copying down "certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me," and of working out "the rhythm of a sentence" that gives shape to his own ideas. Only much later can the text be "prepared for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object" – a moment, according to Barthes, when the writing "is already beginning its commercialization."
Clearly the important phase is the one in which "desire is invested in a graphic impulse." And for that, you need the right tools. "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it," Barthes told the interviewer. "As soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them."
The one exception was the Bic, which Barthes found disgusting: "I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy...."
So the penchant for haunting stationery stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.
Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes died long before word processors were available, of course. But a good excuse not to write first drafts that way comes from the poet Ted Hughes, in a passage quoted by Alice W. Flaherty in her fascinating book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.
In an account of judging in a contest for children’s writing, Hughes recalled that the entries once tended to be two or three pages long. "But in the early 1980s," he said, "we suddenly began to get seventy and eighty page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent – a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring...."
In each case, the kid had composed the miniature magnum opus on a word processor.
"What’s happening," according to Hughes, "is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page became more flexible and externalized, the writer [could] get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated."
Which sounds, come to think of it, somewhat like what Barthes called "Bic style." And quite a bit like the output of various academic presses it would be discrete leave unnamed.
Not that writers had to wait for the advent of the word processor to produce work that was (in Hughes’s terms) "extraordinarily fluent" yet "strangely boring."
Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin gave practical tips to scholars who wanted both to impress their readers by clobbering them into a stupor. In a satiric chapter of One Way Street called "Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books," he laid out the principles that many still follow today.
"The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan," Benjaim wrote. "Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes....Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... Numerous opponents who all share the same argument should each be refuted individually."
Benjamin himself never got an academic position, of course. Even so, good advice is timeless.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At December’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, the Committee on Information Technology sponsored two special sessions on electronic scholarship and publication in literary studies. Rather than the familiar panels consisting of three 15-20 minute papers, a pitcher of water, and a brief Q&A (time permitting), these meetings were structured as “electronic poster sessions.” Multiple presenters stationed around the perimeter of the room in front of easel displays and laptop computers demonstrated their projects and spoke to anyone who stopped by with questions.
Conversational and (literally) interactive, these presentations sometimes lasted a few minutes and sometimes more, depending on the size of the group standing at the station and the nature of the questions asked. In the room as a whole, the general hum and the constant movement of people from station to station produced a very different atmosphere from what might be expected in the usual MLA session. It was noisier, more chaotic and informal, more the result of many localized one-to-one encounters. All of this may be new at the MLA, with its culture of paper-readings as public performances, but poster sessions in general have been around for a long time in other disciplines, and sessions like these have long been the norm at science and technology conferences, and even, for example, at the annual meetings of the interdisciplinary Association for Computing in the Humanities. Instead of paper (or foamcore) posters containing labeled graphs, charts, or other visualizations, technology poster sessions usually involve a computer screen. More important, they actually provide for live, hands-on demonstrations of the tools and resources being presented.
This was the second year the MLA has included this kind of technology poster session in its schedule and this year participation was markedly increased. Co-organizer Michael Groden of the University of Western Ontario speculated that simply changing the name in the program from “poster sessions” (which may have puzzled some MLA members) to “digital demonstrations” probably helped. This year’s sessions saw a constant stream of people moving into the room, making their way slowly around the various stations, and then leaving, to be replaced by others. Outside the room a sign containing graphical “thumbnail” images of the posters displayed inside -- a kind of poster of posters -- worked to attract some curious passersby, who wandered in to see what was being demonstrated. Inside, almost every station sustained a rotating cluster of two or three, or six or seven people, sometimes more, watching demonstrations, trying out resources on the computer, or talking to the presenters. Two presenters worked at some stations, in order to be able to divide their attention between two different groups of questioners.
The advent of this new format, along with the increased interest at the sessions, coincides with an increased attention by the MLA to the problem of how to acknowledge new forms of research in general -- and digital projects in particular. The crisis in book and journal publishing has been on the agenda for several years now, but this year a special panel was convened by the MLA to discuss strategies for changing expectations for tenure reviews and to encourage the profession to take account of “’multiple pathways’ to demonstrating research excellence,” other than the traditional letterpress monograph, among them forms of scholarship produced and published online. These new forms include peer-reviewed online journals, which was the focus of the first poster session, featuring my own Web site’s Romantic Circles Praxis Series, as well as The Writing Instructor, and Language and Learning Technology, among other projects.
Though peer reviewed in the traditional way, carefully edited, and indexed by the MLA Bibliography under its unique ISSN, our Praxis Series is also able to take advantage of the flexibilities of scale, inventive genres of scholarship, and more malleable production schedules made possible by online publication. Multimedia essays, illustrated or even using or audio recordings, are among the contributions to its 28 volumes to date. And of course they are searchable, both internally and via Google, and in future may be linked to growing clusters of interoperable digital scholarship.
Besides online electronic journals, which extend traditional forms of scholarship, alternative “pathways” to scholarly research (and publication of the results of that research) will undoubtedly also lead through the kinds of archival, editorial, and analytical work represented in projects at the second poster session: ”New Technologies of Literary Investigation: Digital Demonstrations." These included the William Blake Archive (recently awarded the MLA’s Prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition and granted the approval of the MLA’s Committee on Scholarly Editions, both firsts for a digital edition), the Stolen Time Archive, the Mark Twain Digital Project, text-analysis tools such as TAPoR and Tamarind (the latter of which aims to process large collections of XML documents for text-mining and visualization by the larger NORA project), and research interface tools such as the Litgloss Collaboratory for collecting and sharing annotated foreign-language texts, or Turning the Pages (already in use at the British Library and other places as an interface that allows for virtual, animated page-reading, magnification, and other digital manipulations).
These new forms of scholarship call for new forms of presentation beyond the traditional paper-reading panel. Though C.P. Snow surely exaggerated the divide between the two cultures (literary intellectuals are no longer, if they ever were, “natural Luddites”), these unfamiliar forms of presentation, associated for many with the sciences, may require a slight adjustment in expectations and conventional roles on the part of some MLA conventioneers. As the morning poster session was preparing to get underway and many of us were still booting laptops, arranging our tables, or setting out handouts, a group of several participants entered the hall carrying book bags and sat down in the handful of chairs left at the back of the room still arranged in rows. Facing the “front” of the room, they waited patiently for the panel to begin -- until it gradually dawned on them that there was no panel and no real front to the room, and that they were supposed to stand and circulate around the exhibits on their own.
Those attendees serve to remind us that the inertia of “conventional” culture must be overcome if these new forms of presentation are really to become accepted at MLA meetings. They also stand as a reminder of all the potential users out there who may be waiting passively for online scholarship to begin to speak to them where they “sit,” who may not yet know how to seek out and actively engage digital resources. A change in the culture of the discipline is needed if the new tools and resources are to have their desired impact among scholars. And some of those potential users still require basic education about digital scholarship, how to use it -- and how it might change what they do and how they think about their subject matter.
Kari Kraus of the William Blake Archive told me that “about 70 percent of the people were asking very basic questions about the material,” and that she found herself introducing the archive more often than she had expected. “But that’s fine,” she added, “I love talking about it.” At that point in our conversation we were interrupted by someone approaching the station: “Hi,” said Kraus, “Are you familiar with the William Blake Archive?” She was eventually able to demonstrate the visually striking (paper) print standing on her easel -- a pair of landscape-format plates from Blake’s "The Song of Los," digitally reconstructed by Blake scholar (and one of the archive’s editors) Joseph Viscomi from digital facsimiles downloaded from the archive. Using materials freely available at the archive and opening them in Photoshop on his own desktop, Viscomi was able to make and print out a new facsimile of Blake’s etched plates, reunified in order to demonstrate Blake’s own “virtual designs” according to his original intentions. This is only one example (though a particularly vivid one) of the kinds of individual acts of do-it-yourself scholarship now possible as a result of the many years of collaborative editorial work done to build and edit the massive image and text archive.
Despite the lack of live Internet connections (the hotel’s rates were exorbitant), and despite the newness of the format for some MLA members, most participants -- presenters and questioners -- I spoke with responded very positively to the sessions. In fact I learned that the line between presenter and questioner was not always perfectly clear. There was no dais, no microphone, no chairs in rows -- except for those few left in the morning session that confused the early attendees. Sometimes a passerby turned out to be working in a similar field, or was trying to get support for a new digital project at his or her own institution, or was a would-be contributor to an electronic journal on display, or even a long-distance collaborator at several removes -- such is the nature of the networked world of digital scholarship. Some people making their way around the poster-session rooms were conducting business, exchanging cards or URLs, offering informal proposals to journal editors, and others were engaged in detailed technical discussions about problems of textual encoding or user interface.
During the second session it suddenly dawned on me where I had seen this general kind of activity before: not just at humanities computing conferences, but (of course!) at the MLA’s own legendary and massive “poster session” -- the publishers’ book exhibit hall. At the moment the MLA was meeting to discuss ways to encourage “multiple pathways” to demonstrating excellence in research, including a “commitment to treating electronic work with the same respect accorded to work published in print” -- when many in the profession are seeking alternatives to the monographs produced in increasingly diminishing numbers by university presses, the center of gravity in this regard may have shifted ever so slightly away from the cavernous exhibit hall, with its familiar displays, and toward these buzzing, teeming poster sessions, with their multiple demonstrations of a variety of new digital research projects.
Steven E. Jones
Steven E. Jones is professor of English at Loyola University Chicago and is co-creator and co-editor of the Romantic Circles Web site. Â
As a teacher of writing and literature at Salem State College, I hear a lot of stories. My students, although they may never have ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born, bring hard lessons of endurance to the classroom that seem more profound than any I'd had at their age. For years I've believed that they bring a certain wisdom to the class, a wisdom that doesn't score on the SAT or other standardized tests. The old teaching cliché -- I learn from my students -- feels true, but it is hard to explain. I'm not particularly naïve. I know that life can be difficult. So it is not that my students initiate me into the world of sorrow. It is that they often bring their sorrows, and their struggles, to the material, and when they do, it makes life and literature seem so entwined as to be inseparable.
This past year, for the first time, I taught African American literature: two sections each semester of a yearlong sequence, around 22 students per section. The first semester we began with Phyllis Wheatley and ended with the Harlem Renaissance. The second semester we started with Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and ended with Percival Everett's satire, Erasure, published early in the new millennium.
The students in these classes weren't the ones I typically had in my writing classes. About half were white, and the other half were black, Latino, or Asian. They were generally uninterested or inexperienced in reading, simply trying to satisfy the college's literature requirement. One day before spring break I was assigning the class a hundred pages from Toni Morrison's Sula, and one student looked aghast. "We have to read during vacation?" he sputtered. I learned from them the whole year.
In the fall semester, I was teaching W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. As classes go, it had been fairly dull. Du Bois's essays didn't have the compelling story line of the slave narratives that we had read earlier in the semester. We had just begun examining Du Bois's idea of "double consciousness." It is a complicated notion that an African American, at least around 1900 when Du Bois was writing, had "no true self-consciousness" because he was "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others ... measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." In class, I read this definition, paraphrased it, then asked, "Does this make sense to you?"
There was the usual pause after I ask a question and then, from Omar, a large, seemingly lethargic African American, came a soulful, deep-throated "yeah." The word reverberated in the haphazard circle of desks as we registered the depths from which he had spoken. The room's silence after his "yeah" was not the bored silence that had preceded it. The air was charged. Someone had actually meant something he had said. Someone was talking about his own life, even if it was only one word.
I followed up: "So what do you do about this feeling? How do you deal with it?"
Everyone was staring at Omar, but he didn't seem to notice. He looked at me a second, then put his head down and shook it, slowly, as if seeing and thinking were too much for him. "I don't know, man. I don't know."
The rest of the heads in class dropped down, too, and students began reviewing the passage, which was no longer just a bunch of incomprehensible words by some long-dead guy with too many initials.
Every book that we studied after that day, some student would bring up double consciousness, incorporating it smartly into our discussion. Omar had branded the concept into everyone's minds, including mine.
One idea that arises from double consciousness is that, without "true self-consciousness," you risk giving in and accepting society's definitions of yourself, becoming what society tells you that you are. Such a capitulation may be what happens to Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son, a novel we read during the second semester. Native Son is a brutal book. Bigger, a poor African American from the Chicago ghetto, shows little regret after he murders two women. His first victim is Mary, the daughter of a wealthy white family for whom Bigger works as a driver. After Bigger carries a drunk, semiconscious Mary up to her room, he accidentally suffocates her with a pillow while trying to keep her quiet so his presence won't be discovered. Realizing what he has done, he hacks up her body and throws it in the furnace. Emboldened rather than horrified, he writes a ransom note to the family and eventually kills his girlfriend, Bessie, whom he drags into the scheme. In the end, he's found out, and, after Chicago is thrown into a hysterical, racist-charged panic, he's caught, brought to trial -- a very long trial that contains a communist lawyer's exhaustive defense of Bigger that is an indictment of capitalism and racism -- and sentenced to death.
Readers, to this day, are not sure what to make of Bigger. Is he to be pitied? Is he a warning? A symbol? A product of American racism?
During the second week of teaching Native Son, I was walking through the college's athletic facility when I heard my name, "Mr. Scrimgeour. Mr. Scrimgeour..."
I turn and it is Keith, an African American from the class. "Hey, I wanted to tell you, I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" He has missed a few classes, but no more than most students. Maybe he hasn't turned in his last response paper.
"Yeah, I'm going to talk in class more." I nod. He looks at me as if I'm not following. "Like Bigger, I don't know.... I don't like it." His white baseball cap casts a shadow over his face so that I can barely see his eyes.
"What don't you like?"
"He's, like," Keith grimaces, as if he isn't sure that he should say what he is about to say. "He's like a stereotype -- he's like what people -- some people -- say about us."
On "us," he points to his chest, takes a step back, and gives a pained half grin, his teeth a bright contrast to his dark, nearly black skin.
"Yeah," I say. "That's understandable. You should bring that up in the next class. We'll see what other people think."
He nods. "And I'm sorry," he says, taking another step back, "It's just that...." He taps his chest again, "I'm shy."
Keith has trouble forming complete sentences when he writes. I don't doubt that my fourth-grade son can write with fewer grammatical errors. Yet he had identified the criticism of Wright's book made by such writers as James Baldwin and David Bradley, whose essays on Native Son we would read after we finished the novel. And he knew something serious was at stake -- his life -- that chest, and what was inside it, that he'd tapped so expressively. Was Bigger what Baldwin identified as the "inverse" of the saccharine Uncle Tom stereotype? Was Wright denying Bigger humanity? And, if so, should we be reading the book?
To begin answering these questions required an understanding of Bigger. For me, such an understanding would come not just from the text, but from my students' own lives.
That Keith apologized for his lack of participation in class is not surprising. My students are generally apologetic. "I'm so ashamed," one student said to me, explaining why she didn't get a phone message I'd left her. "I live in a shelter with my daughter." Many of them feel a sense of guilt for who they are, a sense that whatever went wrong must be their fault. These feelings, while often debilitating, enable my students, even Keith, to understand Bigger, perhaps better than most critics. Keith, who -- at my prompting -- spoke in class about being pulled over by the police, understood the accumulation of guilt that makes you certain that what you are doing, and what you will do, is wrong. Bigger says he knew he was going to murder someone long before he actually does, that it was as if he had already murdered.
Unlike his critics, Richard Wright had an unrelentingly negative upbringing. As he details in his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright was raised in poverty by a family that discouraged books in the violently racist South. There was little, if anything, that was sustaining or nurturing. Perhaps a person has to have this sense of worthlessness ground into one's life to conceive of a character like Bigger. Like my students, one must be told that one isn't much often enough so that it is not simply an insult, but a seemingly intractable truth.
"I'm sorry," Keith had said. It was something Bigger could never really bring himself to say, and in this sense the Salem State students were much different from Bigger. Their response to society's intimidation isn't Bigger's rebelliousness. Wright documents Bigger's sense of discomfort in most social interactions, particularly when speaking with whites, during which he is rendered virtually mute, stumbling through "yes, sirs" and loathing both himself and the whites while doing so.
Although my students weren't violent, they identified with Bigger's discomfort -- they'd experienced similar, less extreme discomforts talking to teachers, policemen, and other authority figures. As a way into discussing Bigger, I'd asked them to write for a few minutes in class about a time in which they felt uncomfortable and how they had responded to the situation. I joined them in the exercise. Here's what I wrote:
As a teenager, after school, I would go with a few other guys and smoke pot in the parking lot of the local supermarket, then go into the market's foyer and play video games stoned. While I felt uncomfortable about smoking pot in the parking lot, I didn't really do much. I tried to urge the guys I was with to leave the car and go inside and play the video games, but it wouldn't mean the same thing: to just go in and play the games would be childish, uncool, but to do it after smoking pot made it OK -- and once I was in the foyer, it was OK.; I wouldn't get in trouble. But mostly I did nothing to stop us. I toked, like everyone else. I got quiet. I didn't really hear the jokes, but forced laughter anyway. I was very attentive to my surroundings -- was that lady walking out with the grocery cart looking at us? Afterward, when we went in and manipulated those electronic pulses of light and laughed at our failures, we weren't just laughing at our failures, we were laughing at what we had gotten away with.
After they had worked in groups, comparing their own experiences to Bigger's, I shared my own writing with the class. Of course, there were smiles, as well as a few looks of astonishment and approbation. I had weighed whether to confess to my "crime," and determined that it might lead to learning, as self-disclosure can sometimes do, and so here I was, hanging my former self out on a laundry line for their inspection.
What came of the discussion was, first of all, how noticeable the differences were between my experience and Bigger's. I was a middle class white boy who assumed he would be going to college. I believed I had a lot to lose from being caught, while Bigger, trapped in a life of poverty, may not have felt such risks. Also, the discomfort I was feeling was from peer pressure, rather than from the dominant power structure. Indeed, my discomfort arose from fact that I was breaking the rules, whereas Bigger's arose from trying to follow the rules -- how he was supposed to act around whites.
But there was also a curious similarity between my experience and Bigger's. Playing those video games would have meant something different had we not smoked pot beforehand. The joy of wasting an afternoon dropping quarters into Galaga was about knowing that we had put one over on the authorities; it was about the thrill of getting away with something, of believing, for at least a brief time, that we were immune to society's rules. Like me after I was safely in the supermarket, Bigger, upon seeing that he could get away with killing Mary, felt "a queer sense of power," and believed that he was "living, truly and deeply." In a powerless life, Bigger had finally tasted the possibility of power.
My students know Bigger moderately well. They don't have his violent streak; they don't know his feelings of being an outsider, estranged from family and community despite hanging out with his cronies in the pool hall and being wept over by his mother.
What they understand is his sense of powerlessness. They have never been told that they can be players on the world stage, and, mostly, their lives tell them that they can't, whether it's the boss who (they think) won't give them one night off a semester to go to a poetry reading, or the anonymous authority of the educational bureaucracy that tells them that due to a missed payment, or deadline, they are no longer enrolled. As one student writes in his midterm: "Bigger is an African American man living in a world where who he is and what he does doesn't matter, and in his mind never will."
I went to a talk recently by an elderly man who had worked for the CIA for 30 years, an engineer involved with nuclear submarines who engaged in the cloak-and-dagger of the cold war. The layers of secrecy astonish. How much was going on under the surface! -- the trailing and salvaging of nuclear subs; the alerts in which cities and nations were held over the abyss in the trembling fingers of men as lost as the rest of us, though they generally did not realize it.
During the questions afterward, someone asked about the massive buildup of nuclear arsenals. "Didn't anyone look at these thousands of nuclear warheads we were making and say 'This is crazy?' "
The speaker nodded, his bald freckled head moving slowly. He took a deep breath. "It was crazy, but when you are in the middle of it, it is hard to see. No one said anything."
After the talk, I fell into conversation with the speaker's son, a psychologist in training. I was noting how tremendously distant this world of espionage was from the world of my students, how alien it was. And I said that the stories of near nuclear annihilation frightened me a lot more than they would frighten them. In essence, my students saw their lives like Bigger's: The great world of money and power was uninterested in them and moved in its ways regardless of what they did. Like Bigger, they would never fly the airplanes that he, who had once dreamed of being a pilot, watches passing over the Chicago ghetto.
"It's too bad they feel so disempowered," the son said, and it is. Yet there is something valuable in their psychology, too. It is liberating to let that world -- money and power -- go, to be able to see the outlines of your existence, so that you can begin to observe, and know, and ultimately make an acceptable marriage with your life. Some might say it is the first step to becoming a writer.
After September 11, 2001, a surprising number of students didn't exhibit the depth of horror that I had witnessed others display on television. "I'm sorry if I sound cold," one student said, "but that has nothing to do with me." One of my most talented students even wrote in an essay, "The war has nothing to do with my life. I mean the blood and the death disgusts me, but I'm sorry -- I just don't care."
And then I watched them realize how it did indeed have to do with them. It meant that they lost their jobs at the airport, or they got called up and sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. The world doesn't let you escape that easily. Bigger got the chair.
It has been two months since we finished Native Son. The school year is ending, and I rush to class, a bit late, trying to decide whether to cancel it so that I can have lunch with a job candidate -- we're hiring someone in multicultural literature, and I'm on the search committee. As I make my way over, I feel the tug of obligation -- my students would benefit from a discussion of the ending of Percival Everett's Erasure, even though, or perhaps especially because, almost none of them have read it. Yet it's a fine spring day, a Friday, and they will not be interested in being in class, regardless of what I pull out of my teaching bag of tricks. I weigh the options -- dull class for everyone or the guilt of canceling a class (despite the department chair's suggestion that I cancel it). Before I enter the room, I'm still not quite sure, but I'm leaning toward canceling. I take a deep breath and then breathe out, exhaling my guilt into the tiled hallway.
I open the door; the students are mostly there, sitting in a circle, as usual. Only a few are talking. I walk toward the board, and -- I freeze -- scrawled across it is:
Why are we even here for? You already gave us the final. It's not like you're going to help us answer it.
Looking at it now, I think the underline was a nice touch, but at that moment, for a rage-filled second, I think, "We're going to have class, dammit! Make them suffer." I stand with my back to them, slowing my breath, my options zipping through my mind while sorrow (despair?) and anger bubble in me and pop, pop into the afternoon's clear light.
So much for learning. Were our conversations simply for grades? Was that the real story of this year?
When we discussed Native Son, we talked about how easy it was to transfer feelings of guilt to rage at those who make you feel guilty. Bigger's hatred of whites stems from how they make him feel. He pulls a gun and threatens Mary's boyfriend, Jan, when Jan is trying to help him, because Jan has made him feel he has done wrong. In the book, Wright suggests that white society loathes blacks because they are reminders of the great sin of slavery. Is my rage from guilt -- guilt that we haven't really accomplished much this year, guilt that I was willing to cancel a class because I didn't want to endure 45 minutes of bored faces? Pop ... pop.
I dismiss the class and stroll over to the dining commons to collect my free lunch.
Erasure is a brilliant satire, one that contains an entire novella by the book's protagonist, a frustrated African American writer, Monk Ellison, who has been told one too many times by editors that his writings aren't "black enough." The novel within a novel lifts the plot of Native Son almost completely, and it presents a main character, Van Go Jenkins, as the worst stereotype of African American culture, someone without morals, whose only interests are sex and violence. At one point, Van Go slaps one of his sons around -- he has four children by four different women -- because the mentally handicapped three-year-old spilled juice on Van Go's new shirt.
It's clear that Erasure's narrator, Monk, is appalled by the book he writes, and that he's appalled by Native Son and the attitudes about race and writing the novel has fostered. When we do discuss the book in class, I point to a snippet of dialogue that Monk imagines:
D.W. GRIFFITH: I like your book very much.
RICHARD WRIGHT: Thank you.
"So this is a real question Erasure raises," I say. My pulse quickens. I can sense them listening, waiting. "Is this book right about Richard Wright? Is this book fair to him? To Native Son? Has the creation of Bigger Thomas been a disaster for African Americans? Has it skewered the country's view of race in a harmful way?" I pause, content. Even if no one raises a hand, even if no discussion ensues, -- and certainly some discussion will erupt -- I can see the question worming into their minds, a question that they might even try to answer themselves.
La Sauna, the student who never lets me get away with anything, raises her hand: "What do you think?"
What do I think? I wasn't ready for that. What do I think?
What I think, I realize, has been altered by what they think, and what they have taught me about the book, about the world.
There are no definite answers, but my students had helped identify the questions, and had pointed toward possible replies. After we had finished reading Native Son, I asked the class, "How many of you want Bigger to get away, even after he bashes in Bessie's head?" A good third of the class raised their hands, and, like the class itself, those who wanted this double murderer to escape were a mix of men and women, blacks and whites. There are several ways to interpret this, but I don't think it is a sign of callousness, the residue of playing too much Grand Theft Auto. They wanted Bigger to escape because Wright had gotten into Bigger's consciousness deeply and believably enough that he became real, more than a symbol or a stereotype.
I tell them this, how their response to Bigger has influenced my reading. I don't tell them Gina's story.
Gina was one of the students who read the books. She loved Tea Cake and Sula, was torn between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She even visited me in my office once or twice to seek advice about problems with a roommate, or a professor. An African American student from a rough neighborhood, she ended up leaving the college after the semester ended, unable to afford housing costs.
Sometime in March of that semester, Gina came to my office. She had missed class and wanted to turn in her response paper on Native Son. The class had read the essays by Baldwin and Bradley criticizing the novel, and had been asked to evaluate them. Baldwin, Gina tells me, was difficult, "but he was such a good writer."
Did she agree with Baldwin, I ask? Was Bigger denied humanity by Wright? How does she feel toward Bigger?
"I think he needs help," she says, "but I felt sorry for him. I wanted him to be able to understand his life--" I cut in, offering some teacherish observation about how Bigger shows glimmers of understanding in the last part of the book, but her mind is far ahead of me, just waiting for me to stop. I do.
"The book reminded me of the guy who killed my uncle. You probably saw it -- the trial was all over the TV last week."
I shake my head.
The man and an accomplice had murdered her uncle, a local storeowner, three years ago, and the previous week had been sentenced to life without parole. The two had been friends of the uncle's family, had played pool with the uncle the night before, planning to rob and kill him the next day.
"When I saw him sitting there, with his head down, looking all sad, I don't know, I felt sorry for him. I wanted to give him a copy of Native Son. I wanted to walk up to him and put it in his lap. It might help him to understand his life.
She looks at me, her brown face just a few shades darker than mine. She's 19. Her hair is pinned back, and some strands float loose. Her eyes are as wide as half dollars, as if she's asking me something. Without thinking, I nod slowly, trying to hold her gaze. On the shelves surrounding us are the papers and books of my profession, the giant horde that will pursue me until I die.
"My family wants him to suffer -- hard. But I want to talk to him. Do you think that's bad? I want to know why he did it, what happened. I wonder how he'd react if he saw me -- what he'd do if I gave him the book."
I imagined Native Son in the man's lap. The glossy, purple, green, and black cover bright against the courtroom's muted wood, the man's trousers. His hand, smooth with youth, holds its spine. His thumb blots out part of the eerie full-lipped face on the front. As the words of the court fall about him, the book rises and falls ever so slightly, as if breathing.
J.D. Scrimgeour coordinates the creative program at Salem State College and is the author of the poetry collection The Last Miles. This essay is part of his new collection, Themes for English B: A Professor's Education In and Out of Class, which is being released today by the University of Georgia Press and is reprinted here with permission.
The new issue of Virginia Quarterly Review contains a recently discovered poem by Robert Frost, “War Thoughts at Home,” inscribed on the flyleaf of a book in 1918 and unearthed last year by Robert Stilling, a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia.
With hindsight, it appears that other researchers must have just missed noticing the poem. It was Stilling’s sharp eye, combined with some good luck, that added one more piece to the body of Frost’s work. He writes about the context of the poem -- as well as the circumstances of its discovery -- in a short essay accompanying the text.
I gave Stilling a call to find out more about this bit of sleuthing. But before discussing that, it makes sense to say something about the poem itself, particularly since it is not yet available online. Frost’s estate will permit quotation of only four lines of it without special permission. As it happens, each of the seven stanzas is five lines long -- so any excerpt will be that much more fragmentary.
Poetry is what doesn't paraphrase, but here goes anyway.... The scene is late afternoon on a weatherbeaten farm. Storage sheds spot the landscape behind a house. A woman sewing inside hears a ruckus -- a conflict between blue jays and crows.
She gets up to look out the window. A few of the birds are talking among themselves in a tree. They discuss going AWOL -- flying off, one by one, even though their battle is no more finished than the one under way in France.
The woman’s mind turns to thoughts of an army camp there -- a place where men are turned into soldiers. That one of those men is a husband, or son, or brother, is not explicitly stated. (The voice narrating the poem is fairly taciturn.)
She pulls down the shade and lights a lamp. The window glows from its light. And the final lines of the poem (which we’ll quote per the quota) sketch the scene outside:
The uneven sheds stretch back Shed behind shed in train Like cars that have long lain Dead on a side track.
The text is dated January 1918 – almost three and a half years into “the war that will end war,” as H.G. Wells had called it in one of his less prophetic moments. By then, the occasion for high rhetoric was over; the carnage seemed endless, pointless. The poem is not an editorial. But it seems very much of its moment – and the timing of its rediscovery now is remarkable.
“War Thoughts at Home” was inscribed on the flyleaf of a copy of Frost’s second collection of verse, North of Boston (1914), found in the library of his friend Frederic Melcher, an editor of Publisher’s Weekly. Following the poet’s death in 1963, Melcher mentioned the inscription in passing in an article. Evidently nobody followed up that lead, however, and the poem lay unnoticed until last year.
That was when Rob Stilling found it. Before calling him for an interview, I assumed this bit of detective work was something incidental to work on his dissertation. Actually, he says, he has another year and a half before making a proposal for one. Stilling was, rather, looking for a summer research project for 2005 when he asked Stephen Cushman, a professor at UVa., if he had any suggestions.
“He mentioned that the library had just acquired the Melcher materials that spring,” recalls Stilling. After just about an hour of looking through the still-uncataloged documents, Stilling noticed some interesting references to an unpublished Frost poem in Melcher’s correspondence. He tracked down the volume, then determined that the inscription was not simply a draft of something Frost eventually published under another title.
“I spent a semester with Cushman,” he says, “learning more about Frost, about his other war poems, and also about Melcher.” The editor was among Frost’s earliest champions, but has not, Stilling says, received much attention from scholars.
Somewhat better known -– at least among Frost enthusiasts -– is another friend of the poet’s named Edward Thomas, a British man of letters who volunteered for battle and was killed on the Monday following Easter of 1917. A volume chronicling their friendship appeared two years ago, and Stilling’s essay in VQR helps to situate “War Thoughts at Home” as part of Frost’s process of coming to terms with Thomas’s death, and with the war itself.
But as Stilling mentioned, there has been a tendency in some reports of his discovery to read the poem in strictly biographical terms. “People will say that it is dedicated to Thomas,” he notes, “which it isn’t. Although Frost did later publish a poem called ‘To E.T.,’ they are very different. Or you might read that the woman in the poem is Helen Thomas, his widow.” That isn’t an impossible reading, of course, but the identity of the woman is not made explicit.
The impulse to make a given poem over into a recognizable scene from the author’s life story is a strong one. The situation is probably compounded by the familiar notion of Frost that has taken its place in our repertoire of cultural imagery. He is remembered as a folksy poet who wrote in traditional forms, unlike all those experimentalists running amok at the time.
The rustic setting and ballad-like stanzas of “War Thoughts at Home” would seem to confirm that impression. But it is by no means the full story.
In an essay appearing in The New Republic a few weeks after the poet’s death in 1963, Irving Howe wrote that Frost had “remained faithful to what Yeats called ‘the modern mind in search of its own meanings’.... As he contemplates the thinning landscape of his world and repeatedly finds himself before closures of outlook and experience, he ends, almost against his will, in the company of the moderns. With their temperament and technique he has little in common; he shares with them only a vision of disturbance.”
That is, in fact, a pretty good description of “War Thoughts at Home.” In his essay, Stilling shows how unsettled Frost was about the war -– uncertain of his own place in the world as events unfolded, and ambivalent, perhaps, about the heroism that led to the sacrifice of his friend’s life. “I understand the poem,” he told me, “almost as Frost’s comment on a sense of dissatisfaction with where he found himself.”
The problem being, of course, that the reader tends to focus on the allegorical imagery of birds at war. And then there’s the sentimental touch of that lamp, glowing in the window. But by the final stanza, Frost shifts gears wildly -- conjuring up a scene of disorder, abandonment, futility:
The uneven sheds stretch back Shed behind shed in train Like cars that have long lain Dead on a side track.
It is, as Howe put it, “a vision of disturbance.” (At the end of this particular railroad line, you reach “The Wasteland.”)
It is not clear why Frost left “War Thoughts at Home” tucked away in an inscription. If not among his best poems, it’s also far from his worst.
Perhaps, as Stilling suggests, the ending lines unnerved the author. “This is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend,” he writes. Its “troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.” Which now, in fact, seems like the best thing about it.
In May 2002, Stephen Greenblatt, then president of the Modern Language Association, wrote a letter on behalf of his colleagues on the Executive Council that reverberated throughout departments of English and foreign languages. Drawing on conversations with university press editors and the members of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing (whose report was released later that year), Greenblatt noted that “university presses, which in the past brought out the vast majority of scholarly books, are cutting back on the publication of works in some areas of language and literature” and that “certain presses have eliminated editorial positions in our disciplines.” As a result, Greenblatt warned, junior faculty members whose departments require a book for tenure and promotion might be at risk, due not to any shortcoming in their scholarship but to a “systemic” crisis. “Their careers are in jeopardy, and higher education stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars.”
Greenblatt’s letter circulated widely in the profession. Within the year, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an association that includes Big Ten universities, decided that there was, in fact, no crisis in scholarly publishing. But university press directors continued to insist that their budgets were being trimmed, that university library purchases were down, and that they were compelled to publish cookbooks, or books about regional flora and fauna, to absorb the losses associated with your average scholarly monograph. Meanwhile, junior faculty members became even more worried about their prospects for tenure, while a few opportunistic departments took the occasion of the Greenblatt letter to raise the quantitative standards for scholarly production, on the grounds that if the monograph was the “gold standard” for tenure and promotion at major research universities, then clearly the way to clamber up the rankings was to demand more books from young faculty members.
For the next few years, debate spun off in a variety of directions. Greenblatt had mentioned the possibility that universities might provide “a first-book subvention, comparable to (though vastly less expensive than) the start-up subvention for scientists.” My own institution, Penn State, had a mixed reaction: When, as a newly elected member of the MLA Executive Council, I discussed the letter with my dean and with my colleagues, I was told that Penn State would not consider reverting to the bad old days in which assistant professors without single-authored books were considered for tenure -- but that the College of Liberal Arts would provide $10,000 in start-up costs to every newly hired junior faculty member, to be used for (among other things) book subventions. Across the country, however, the subvention suggestion drew a good deal of criticism. For some observers, it smacked too much of vanity publishing: If we are now in the position of paying presses to publish our work, critics cried, then surely this is a sign that our work is worthless and that the once-high scholarly standards of the discipline had been eroded by feminism and postmodernism and cultural studies and queer theory and Whatever Else Came to Mind Studies.
Remarkably, these critics did not stop to reflect on the fact that scholarly monographs have never sold very well and were kept alive only by the indirect subsidies thanks to which university libraries were able to purchase large numbers of new books. Since new monographs were no longer subsidized by academic library purchases, the MLA argued, it only made sense to support the production of monographs some other way -- particularly since many of the least “popular” monographs are produced not in the fields of queer theory and cultural studies but in medieval studies and foreign languages, fields whose precarious place in the system of academic publishing can hardly be blamed on their trendiness.
Likewise, many departments balked at the idea of “lowering” their tenure standards by relying on modes of scholarly production other than monographs -- things like journal essays, scholarly editions, translations, and online publications. Any move away from the monograph, these critics argued, would necessarily involve a decline in scholarly quality. This argument, it seems, is quite common among professors in the modern languages. It is also quite strange. Less than 30 years ago, the monograph was generally not part of the tenure-and-promotion apparatus: The book-for-tenure criterion is a recent blip in our history. And most academic disciplines, from sociology to linguistics to anthropology to philosophy, do not require books for tenure; yet tenure committees in those disciplines somehow remain capable of distinguishing excellent from mediocre scholarship.
The anecdotal information was piling up, and so were the critiques and countercritiques. The MLA wanted to figure out what was really happening, so the Executive Council created a Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion in 2004. We spent two years sifting through evidence, statistical and anecdotal; we commissioned a unprecedented study of the tenuring practices of 1,339 departments in 734 different institutions over the past 10 years; we read studies and reports on tenure and the production of scholarship over the past 40 or 50 years; and almost to our own amazement, we completed our report on schedule earlier this year.
The survey contains good news and bad news: The good news is that there is to date no “lost generation” of young scholars whose careers have been thwarted or blighted by the system of scholarly publishing. Tenure rates since 1994 have not changed appreciably, even as many institutions have demanded more published work for tenure and promotion. But there are other factors at work, long before the tenure review. MLA studies of Ph.D. placement show that no more than half, and often fewer, of any given year's Ph.D.’s are hired to tenure-track positions in the year they receive their degrees. Information is sketchy for career paths beyond the first year, but what information is available suggests that, on average, something on the order of 60 to 65 percent of all English and foreign language Ph.D.’s are hired to tenure-track positions within five years of receiving their doctorates and an estimated 38 percent are considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of those 38 percent, 90 percent -- or 34 of every 100 doctoral recipients -- are awarded tenure. In other words, for a variety of reasons, many scholars simply drop off the tenure track long before they are reviewed for tenure and promotion; most of the people who stick it out do so in the belief that they have met the requirements. One might say that the tenure and promotion glass is 90 percent full -- or 66 percent empty, thanks to all the attrition along the way. But it seems clear that the people who are considered for tenure today have become so accomplished at meeting expectations that by the time they are reviewed, they are ready to clear almost any bar, no matter how high it is set. Thus, even as the system of scholarly publishing remains distressed, the scholars themselves seem to be finding ways to cope.
On the other hand, and this is the bad news, their coping mechanisms -- or, rather, the disciplinary practices that produce them -- seem to be rendering the system dysfunctional in important ways. For one thing, the press directors and librarians are not wrong: regardless of the fact that the campuses are not strewn with the bodies of young scholars turned down for tenure, the system of scholarly publishing is under severe financial pressure, and no one imagines that library and press budgets will be increasing significantly anytime soon. New monographs in the humanities now face print runs in the low hundreds and prohibitive unit costs. At the same time, over 60 percent of all departments report that publication has increased in importance in tenure decisions over the last 10 years, and the percentage of departments ranking scholarship of primary importance (that is, more important than teaching) has more than doubled since the last comparable survey was conducted in 1968: from 35.4 percent to 75.8 percent. Almost half -- 49.8 percent -- of doctoral institutions (which, because of their size, employ proportionally more faculty members than any other kind of institution) now require progress on a second book of their candidates for tenure.
So expectations are indeed rising, and most scholars are rising to the challenge. What’s the problem?
The problem is not simple. For one thing, departments are increasingly asking for books from junior professors without providing them the time to write books. It’s no surprise that 88.9 percent of doctoral institutions rate the publication of a monograph as “important” or “very important” for tenure, but it might be something of shock to learn -- it certainly was a shock to us -- that 44.4 percent of masters institutions and 48 percent of baccalaureate institutions now consider monographs “important” or “very important” as well. At the same time, 20 percent to 30 percent of departments -- at all levels -- consider translations, textbooks, scholarly editions, and bibliographic scholarship to be “not important.” About the digital age, most doctoral departments are largely clueless: 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating journal articles in electronic format, and almost two-thirds (65.7 percent) report no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This despite the fact that the journal Postmodern Culture, which exists only in electronic form, has just celebrated its 15th birthday. Online journals have been around for some time now, and online scholarship is of the same quality as print media, but referees’ and tenure committees’ expectations for the medium have lagged far behind the developments in the digital scholarly world. As Sean Latham, one of the members of the Task Force, said at the 2005 MLA convention in Washington, “If we read something through Project Muse, are we supposed to feel better because somewhere there is a print copy?” For too many scholars, the answer is yes: The scholarly quality of the .PDF on your screen is guaranteed by the existence of the print version, just as your paper money is secured by the gold of Fort Knox.
The Task Force report recommends that departments and colleges evaluate scholarly work in all its forms, instead of placing almost exclusive emphasis on the monograph. We have nothing against monographs; in fact, a few of us have written monographs ourselves. But our survey suggests that an increasing number of institutions expect more publications for tenure and promotion -- and substitute measures of quantity for judgments about quality. Most important, we believe there is a real and unnecessary disjunction between the wide range of scholarly work actually produced by scholars in the modern languages and the narrow way in which it is commonly evaluated.
We hope it will surprise some people that our recommendations go well beyond this. We attempted to review every aspect of the tenure process, from the question of how many external letters are too many (in most cases, more than six) to the question of how to do justice to new hires who change jobs at some point during their time on the tenure track or who are hired to joint appointments (with explicit, written letters of expectation stating whether and how each candidate’s work at other institutions or departments will be considered). We have recommendations for how departments can conduct internal reviews, so that they are not quite so dependent on the determinations of referees for journals and university presses; recommendations for how to evaluate scholarship produced in new media; and -- though we acknowledge that it’s just beyond our reach -- a recommendation that graduate programs in the modern languages begin deliberating about whether it is a good idea to continue to demand of our doctoral students a document that is, in effect, a protomonograph waiting for a couple of good readers and a cloth binding.
And though our report is complete and (we like to think) comprehensive, we know there is plenty of work left to do. The Task Force believes that the tenure system needs careful scrutiny at every level. Perhaps most important, we need to recognize the fact that two-thirds of college professors in the United States now teach without tenure (or hope of tenure) -- that may well be the “lost generation” on our campuses today -- and that there are few avenues available for the evaluation of their scholarly contributions to the profession. We wrote the report, finally, with multiple audiences in mind -- younger scholars, department chairs, and tenure committees, of course, but also upper-level administrators, graduate students, and the higher education press as well. We hope that all these audiences will find something of value in the report -- and will try, in whatever ways possible, to work with the MLA to implement the Task Force’s recommendations.
On April 19, after a day of teaching classes at Shippensburg University, I went out to my car and grabbed a box of old poetry manuscripts from the front seat of my little white beetle and carried it across the street and put it next to the trashcan outside Wright Hall. The poems were from poetry contests I had been judging and the box was heavy. I had previously left my recycling boxes there and they were always picked up and taken away by the trash department.
A young man from ROTC was watching me as I got into my car and drove away. I thought he was looking at my car, which has black flower decals and sometimes inspires strange looks. I later discovered that I, in my dark skin, am sometimes not even a person to the people who look at me. Instead, in spite of my peacefulness, my committed opposition to all aggression and war, I am a threat by my very existence, a threat just living in the world as a Muslim body.
Upon my departure, he called the local police department and told them a man of Middle Eastern descent driving a heavily decaled white Beetle with out of state plates and no campus parking sticker had just placed a box next to the trash can. My car has New York State plates, but he got the rest of it wrong. I have two stickers on my car. One is my highly visible faculty parking sticker and the other, which I just don't have the heart to take off these days, says "Kerry/Edwards: For a Stronger America."
Because of my recycling the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear. Because of the way he saw me. Because of the culture of fear, mistrust, hatred, and suspicion that is carefully cultivated in the media, by the government, by people who claim to want to keep us "safe."
These are the days of orange alert, school lock-downs, and endless war. We are preparing for it, training for it, looking for it, and so of course, in the most innocuous of places -- a professor wanting to hurry home, hefting his box of discarded poetry -- we find it.
That man in the parking lot didn't even see me. He saw my darkness. He saw my Middle Eastern descent. Ironic because though my grandfathers came from Egypt, I am Indian, a South Asian, and could never be mistaken for a Middle Eastern man by anyone who'd ever met one.
One of those in the gathering crowd, trying to figure out what had happened, heard my description-a Middle Eastern man driving a white Beetle with out-of-state plates and knew immediately they were talking about me and realized that the box must have been manuscripts I was discarding. When the police were told I was a professor, immediately the question came back about where I was from.
At some length several of my faculty colleagues were able to get through to the police and get me on a cell phone where I explained to the university president and then to the state police that the box contained old poetry manuscripts that needed to be recycled. The police officer told me that in the current climate I needed to be more careful about how I behaved. "When I recycle?" I asked.
The university president appreciated my distress about the situation but denied that the call had anything to do with my race or ethnic background. The spokesman for the university called it an "honest mistake," not referring to the young man from ROTC giving in to his worst instincts and calling the police but referring to me, who made the mistake of being dark-skinned and putting my recycling next to the trashcan.
The university's bizarrely minimal statement lets everyone know that the "suspicious package" beside the trashcan ended up being, indeed, trash. It goes on to say, "We appreciate your cooperation during the incident and remind everyone that safety is a joint effort by all members of the campus community."
What does that community mean to me, a person who has to walk by the ROTC offices every day on my way to my own office just down the hall-who was watched, noted, and reported, all in a day's work? Today we gave in willingly and whole-heartedly to a culture of fear and blaming and profiling. It is deemed perfectly appropriate behavior to spy on one another and police one another and report on one another. Such behaviors exist most strongly in closed and undemocratic and fascist societies.
The university report does not mention the root cause of the alarm. That package became "suspicious" because of who was holding it, who put it down, who drove away. Me.
It was poetry, I kept insisting to the state policeman who was questioning me on the phone. It was poetry I was putting out to be recycled.
My body exists politically in a way I can not prevent. For a moment today, without even knowing it, driving away from campus in my little Beetle, exhausted after a day of teaching, listening to Justin Timberlake on the radio, I ceased to be a person when a man I had never met looked straight through me and saw the violence in his own heart.
Kazim Ali is a poet and novelist. He teaches at Shippensburg University and at Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program of the University of Southern Maine. Eyewitnesses confirmed his account of the scene after he left the university. A university spokesman declined to discuss specifics of the incident or who was involved, but told Inside Higher Ed that "the response was appropriate based on the circumstances," and that "just days after the [Virginia Tech] massacre, everybody is looking out for each other."
"But publishers said their biggest hope was that Kindle would expand sales of books to a new generation of gadget lovers." --The New York Times
When I ask my English students to set learning goals for themselves at the beginning of each term, I’m interested in finding out how they want to improve as readers and writers. I am even more interested in getting at what they think it means to be good readers and good writers.
The most common "reading" goal my students set for themselves is to read faster. Because they have so much going on in their young lives, they are looking for the most efficient ways of getting their reading finished. They also mention that they want to improve their comprehension of what they read, but more importantly they want to learn how do it quickly.
They soon learn I don’t teach speed reading. I teach slow reading. I teach slow, concentrated, finger-on-the-page reading. I read to my students in my slow Texas drawl. I crawl with them through the passages and passageways. We mosey. We copy down sentences. We write paraphrases. We imitate sentences. We read a couple of lines. We ask questions. We pause. We read those lines again. I dedicate entire classes to silent, sustained, shared reading. We call it “reading lab.”
The relationship we have with text is called reading. The quality of that relationship depends upon what we bring to those relationships. Improving the relationships college students have with text is our primary responsibility. And it chiefly occurs when we read to and for them. I know many professors think that students already know how to read when they come to college (or should), but there is a real difference between knowing how to read words on the page and having a productive relationship with those words.
Having a productive relationship with text is also dependent upon hearing the text. Many of my students cannot hear what they read. Perhaps it is because they were not read to as children. Whatever the cause, they often cannot hear the voice of the text. Their eyes may be working, but their ears aren’t. Nothing on the lips and tongue either. What they can’t taste, they can’t consume. That’s why I read to my students. I’m their hearing aid. Their sommelier. Given my experience with the text, I help them learn the lay of the land. I help them find the right narrative path so they can follow it page after page. I’m an English instructor who also teaches voice.
I also know that many students sometimes go blind when they see text. It’s a shameful state of cultural affairs. Poetry-blindness is particularly tragic. Poetry unsettles the eye. It can make us dizzy, all this reading back and forth, up and down the page. But students easily go blind in the face of other texts, too. Lost and wandering aimlessly, they might as well give up, shut their eyes, and fall asleep for good.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that many students should go silent in the company of text. That they are unresponsive in class. That they should go dumb after going deaf and blind. That they have no sense and sensation of what they’ve read. That they look to their professors for short cuts, quick reads, and knowledge patches.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that the solution is to teach students to hear and see and speak the words we assign them. To accomplish this, we not only have to slow down our students, we have to slow down ourselves. Do more with less. At its best, reading should be a sort of textual genuflection, the sign of the cross we make between our eyes, ears, mouth, and mind to enliven the soul.
However, the current frantic pace of school work is not conducive to learning how to read the variety of texts students are assigned across the curriculum. Learning to read well is also dependent on reflection -- time to weigh, consider, accommodate, connect, synthesize, incorporate, sort the wheat from the chaff. If reflection is rarely available (or if there’s rarely time to help students learn how to reflect), then learning to read is rare.
Our learning culture is awash in technology so that information can be delivered in the blink of an eye at any time of the day or night. It's true that more information is flowing, but it doesn't always result in more knowing. In this hypersphere, it may be that students are reading and writing more than ever before. But practice doesn't make perfect. It could just as easily wear us down as lift us up.
This is all a prelude to my short take on Amazon’s new product, Kindle, a wireless and portable handheld device designed to make books instantly accessible. It’s actually a graven image. A false gadget god engineered in the service of efficient data transfer and consumer credit. Don’t be fooled, Kindle is no innocent tool. It's not a gift that keeps on giving. It holds a charge so it can keep on charging.
My dear colleague, you will soon be expected to try it. And then you will be expected to buy it. To embrace its efficiencies and remarkable cost savings. To order your textbooks through it. To order your students to use it.
Someone will put it in your hands. Don’t ask where it came from. Or who made it. Just raise it and praise it, dummy. Look how lightweight and lovely. See how quickly you can turn the page!
Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.
The PMLA, the publication of the Modern Language Association, the major association of professors of English, has called for papers on new directions in literary criticism for the 21st century. In a World War II era poem, “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens declared that among other things, modern poetry “has to think about war.” In a similar fashion, as the Iraq war grinds on now into its sixth year, and it has become painfully obvious that, despite some wishful thinking in the wake of Vietnam, protracted American ground wars are hardly a thing of the past, I would suggest that contemporary literary criticism, a great deal more of it anyway, needs “to think about war” and the military.
More than two decades have gone by during which time American literary and “cultural studies” critics have had relatively little to say about these subjects. About World War I and American literature, for example (which is the concern of my new book, The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the Fiction of Mobilization), there have been few major studies since the early 1980s: Stanley Cooperman came out with World War I and the American Novel in 1967; David Kennedy issued Over Here: The First World War and American Society in 1980, and Jeffrey Walsh published American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam in 1982. This subject has since gone out of fashion in English departments.
Back in the mid-1980s, I fulfilled the breadth requirements for a Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Berkeley, and I never had a single course that addressed literature of war or the military: I was never asked to read, in American literature classes or for my American literature field exams, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, or Herr’s Dispatches, nor was I asked to read the criticism cited above. (I only encountered one war novel during an undergraduate English major, but that was in England where I was assigned A Farewell to Arms on a junior year abroad.) In an article in the current PMLA on “The New Modernist Studies,” the authors compile a list of a dozen new and old “currents” in scholarship, but the issue of war is not among them. Even in the field of history, where groundbreaking new work has recently been done on the social-military history of World War I, by the likes of Nancy Gentile Ford, Jennifer Keene, Stephen Ortiz, and Nancy Bristow, these social-military historians find themselves to some degree marginalized within their larger discipline because of their “unsavory” choice of subjects.
We can perhaps guess why the subjects of war and the military have fallen out of favor. The Vietnam War changed the meaning of war and of the military in this country, at least on the left, and the cohort of professors that for the most part has dominated and set trends in these fields of English and history in the last 20 years is of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era; most of these professors were students when the huge protest against the war took place, and most of them were against the war.
Since the Vietnam era -- and this marks a break with previous attitudes -- most American intellectual elites have not wanted to be in the military or to study it: They associate the military with an aggressive foreign policy and with homophobia, and the military’s degree of complicity in these policies is of course a legitimate concern. However, the relationship English professors generally adopt in regards to the military is strictly an oppositional one: They usually want only to criticize the military, not also to understand its undeniably major role in our history and culture. Not incidentally, that role has, historically, been in part a socially progressive one, as it was even in World War I (as the new scholarship has revealed), despite the army’s appalling discrimination against blacks and its mistreatment of women. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the army was in the vanguard in the development of equal opportunity and meritocracy. In any case, to study war and the military does not, of course, make one pro-war. After all, much American war literature is antiwar or anti-military or both.
The couple decades of relative silence about the American experience in World War I by English professors is now beginning to be broken: most notably with Richard Slotkin’s 2005 Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. But more needs to be done and more will be. Studies are forthcoming on World War I and American literature from a number of younger English professors, who, like the small cohort in social-military history who have done groundbreaking work, did not personally experience the ordeal of the Vietnam era.
Perhaps the other major change that we might ask of literary criticism for the 21st century is that it have more interchange with other fields, such as history: that it become more truly interdisciplinary. At last year’s MLA conference, in its Presidential Forum on “Humanities at Work in the World,” Peter Brooks nostalgically conjured up the moment of high promise back in the 1980s when literary theory was providing tools of analysis for other fields and for real-world inquiry, for example for legal scholars, in a talk called “The Humanities as an Export Commodity.” If the interdisciplinary potential of that era faded, it is partly because English professors’ cultural studies went on to develop a highly specialized or esoteric style and thus perhaps also to become, over time, somewhat hermetic in its discourse -- and thus literary criticism today sometimes appears to other disciplines as to some degree remote and isolated.
If English wants again to be in the position Brooks remembered of the 1980s of exporting its analytic and having an influence even in the larger world outside of academia, then it needs to attempt to develop a more accessible style of expression as well as to import from other disciplines. My suggestion for a new direction in literary criticism is what might be called “mobilization studies,” by which I mean not merely the study of war literature, but much more broadly the study of the wide-ranging social and literary effects of mobilizing armies and populations for war and demobilizing them. Analogous to the new sub-field of social-military history developed by historians, “mobilization studies” will be situated at the intersection of policy history, social history, and literary analysis. It was heartening that this year’s Hemingway Society conference invited a social-military historian to give a keynote address. In terms of literary criticism’s engagement both with the issue of war and with other disciplines, let’s hope it is a sign of things to come.