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The importance of lists in literature and life (essay)

New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday for three reasons:

  1. serving my traditional feast of sauerkraut to friends
  2. reciting the holiday’s many poems on Christ’s circumcision
  3. reading lists!

All year long, I eagerly await the year-end lists of superlatives. And, throughout December, I devote whole days to crafting my list of New Year’s resolutions.

Even more than the “naughty or nice” lists of Christmas, New Year’s Day, for me, wins the prize as Holiday with the Most Lists.

This year, I nominate the Harvard University soccer team’s “scouting report” for Most Tasteless List of 2016. As a gay poet, I viewed this particular list with an outsider’s rubbernecked inquisitiveness. I saw the report as part of a degenerate literary tradition of cataloging, indexing and registering.

Likewise, back in 2012, when Mitt Romney blundered by bragging about his “binders full of women,” I recalled that many poets had produced such binders.

Among them: the late-medieval French writer Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (an archive of stories about exemplary women like the Amazons, Sappho, Dido, the Virgin Mary, etc.). De Pizan’s proto-feminist project took a cue from the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, whose On Famous Women had sought to recuperate the reputation of women. And Chaucer, with The Legend of Good Women, parodied the whole genre of medieval lady lists.

To this list of binders, I might add Charles Bukowski’s sex novel, Women. And I cross-reference Women with books that painstakingly index gambling debts, hangovers and menial jobs.

Those writers all felt the influence of one of the greatest list makers: Dante. I discern in the author of The Divine Comedy the spirit of someone possessed by a scholastic frenzy for compartmentalizing, codifying and classifying. Dante’s masterpiece is like a neatly arranged filing cabinet (three drawers, nine folders, with each folder listing afterlife denizens).

Dante offers a stunning rebuke to all those who slander bureaucracy as soulless. His poetry illustrates how the apparent tedium of list making can express the raging passions of heaven or hell, or someplace in between.

Each time I must deal with a bureaucratic snafu, I pray to Dante -- patron saint of bureaucratic beauty.

Sometimes collecting a list -- or recollecting one -- can reaffirm our humanity. Dante’s lists helped to sustain Primo Levi. In Survival in Auschwitz, when Levi and a fellow prisoner recite from the Inferno, the poem provides them with a rare moment of normalcy.

Dante, by leading readers through intricate lists and toward his beloved Beatrice, suggests that the practice of list making, in and of itself, bears upon the great philosophical questions (like death and sex and power).

List making is an anthropological universal, and the desire to make lists speaks to a fundamental human need. Lists, by embodying a rational order, appeal to our nature as embodied, rational creatures (creatures who are all too prone to misusing our highest faculties, like when we make distasteful lists).

Note that some lists are frivolous. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot calls the roll of various cutie-pie felines.

But other lists are foundational. Perhaps American poetry begins with Leaves of Grass, an all-consuming compendium.

Emily Dickinson, too, was “inebriate” of lists, as she would have put it. Narrating her famous postmortem carriage ride, Dickinson lists the earthly phenomena that she leaves behind her:

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --

Some other examples to add to this list of important poetic lists:

  • Paradise Lost flips through Milton’s rolodex of demons, devils and demigods.
  • The Iliad recites a who’s who of heroic warriors.
  • The Hebrew Bible is a profound series of lists (e.g., of the days of creation; of various domestic dysfunctions; of plagues and sins; of wars and kings and songs and laws).

Supposedly, W. H. Auden held that all poetry begins from a love of making lists.

But something sinister lurks beneath the will to compile lists. As Hannah Arendt suggested in her discussion of totalitarianism, the list maker’s art -- though apparently banal -- can grease the wheels of bloody regimes.

A list of objectionable lists might include: slave galley manifests, Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s alleged list of State Department Communists and the blacklist, as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade critiqued the Enlightenment with long, detailed lists of sexual tortures. His lists exposed the wicked potential of reason’s will to define and enumerate. Indeed, perhaps such lists impugn the form of the list itself.

In the case of the “scouting report,” this list might attest to the barbarism latent in male bonding. Perhaps this list reflects an innate, masculine impulse to dominate. Boys, after all, often obsess about baseball card collections and merit badges. And men often obsess about tallies of conquests, stock reports and sports statistics.

Someone familiar with Michel Foucault might develop an argument about how -- by translating the oral discourse of “locker-room talk” into the textual discourse of a written list -- the report actually renders male sexual aggression more susceptible to modern regimes of discipline.

But I have no expertise in such matters, and I certainly have no moral credibility. After all, a list of my privileges would have to include my gender, and a list of my sins would have to count up -- along with my prurience -- many instances of pride, avarice, greed and lechery.

But list making is my favorite vice. I seize upon any opportunity to compose lists. I love to craft to-do lists, grocery lists and Christmas present lists. I enjoy composing lesson plans, syllabi and bibliographies. I once wrote an erotic memoir, in which successive chapters chronicle each of my African-American ex-boyfriends (to be released this February as an ebook for Black History Month). And my life’s work is an ongoing project called The Book-Title List Book, in which I record titles for books that I have titled but will decline to write.

Along with these lists, I’m enchanted by list-like practices (such as exercise routines, the Rosary and grading papers). Procrastinating, I spend afternoons reading Wikipedia’s “List of lists of lists.”

I identify, therefore, with my fellow list makers. Just last semester, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences informed me by email that they had not included my name on their short list of candidates for an open professorship. More than feeling slighted, I swooned with enthusiasm for the fact of the list itself.

And I wondered about the other lists that Harvard might have consulted while making the decision to suspend its soccer team (for example, alumni donor lists).

Even writing this now, I prefer list making to analysis and argument. Then again, list making actually implies analysis. To make a list is to impose hierarchy, organization, order.

I have fallen captive to the spell of the list. Therefore, as I compose my list of New Year’s resolutions, I vow that this year, 2017, will be the year that I fully embrace my love of the list.

A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.

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We should stop distinguishing between 'creative' and other forms of writing (essay)

Bad Ideas About Writing

To many people, if not most, the phrase “creative writing” marks a genre. A man writes in a garret, his pages lit by the faint glow of a lamp. Ideas are spilling madly from his cerebral cortex to the page. He probably has a cup of coffee next to him. Or a dog. And he is writing a story -- perhaps about a road trip.

I know that is the image in most people’s brains because it is the one I’ve read or heard described hundreds of times by the news media, in popular culture, by writers themselves, in books written by writers on writing, by my students and by friends. It is also the image most strangers (or distant family members) produce when I tell them my field is writing studies, a discipline dedicated to the academic study of writing of all kinds: college writing, digital writing and workplace writing, just to name a few examples.

Upon hearing that, a man I met in a hostel over breakfast asked me to listen to his poem to see if it was publishable, even though, not being a poet, I have no credentials for evaluating his text. My distant cousin, after years of asking at Thanksgiving dinners, still can’t understand why I don’t want to edit his novel. Most of us learn to laugh off the glaze that comes over people’s faces as we academics in writing studies explain what we, in fact, do write. 


The problem is that one image of writing dominates the popular imagination and is weighted with value more heavily than all others: writing as “creative writing,” which is treated as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few pervasive problems that stem from the view of creativity as tied to fiction and poetry, from the public’s lack of awareness of what academics and other workplace writers do, from problematic attitudes held within the so-called field of creative writing itself about what types of writing are creative, and from the ways we as writing studies/English scholars reinforce problematic ideas about creativity. Those attitudes include:

  • One sphere of writing is marked off as “creative” while others are devalued.
  • People who write everything except poetry and fiction -- those who contribute the vast majority of writing to the world, in the form of lists, essays, emails, blog posts, texts, instruction manuals and so on -- see their work as less creative and important.
  • This mass of unrecognized writing and labor is virtually unrepresented in popular culture, and academics and other workplace writers are not part of the cultural narrative around creativity (save for some exceptional examples, such as the way writing is represented in the TV show The West Wing, often a powerful meditation on the importance of collaboration and revision in workplace writing, and in Her, a movie that celebrates the ghostwriting of love letters, not generally a celebrated writing genre).

I first took note of the emotional weight and impact of this phenomenon when conducting interviews for my dissertation on the impact of materials of all kinds on the writing process. I interviewed four dozen people and, in countless interviews, they expressed the heartbreaking sentiment that there once was a time when they wrote creatively (i.e., they wrote poems and stories), but now they are just academics or workplace writers. Even more troubling was that when asked if they considered themselves writers, they resoundingly answered no. Even for people who write daily for their trade, writing has become synonymous with poetry and fiction writing, which has become synonymous with “creative writing.”

I began asking more people whose livelihoods depend on the written word and who write daily if they see themselves as writers. I also began asking graduate students who came to see me at various writing centers where I worked whether they considered themselves writers. And again most said no. There was something in the identity label of “writer” that people have attached to a particular kind of writing. Deborah Brandt voiced this powerfully when she pointed out that while the identity label of “reader” is available to most people -- meaning that most readers could confidently say “I’m a reader” -- the identity label of “writer” is not.

In her book, Brandt demonstrates how cultural narratives around the importance of reading enable families to understand the value of this act and to support reading as a family value and practice. This practice, of course, has a long history -- reading was not a solitary or silent activity until relatively recently. (Scholars debate exact dates, but some point to silent reading as a late-19th-century or even 20th-century phenomenon.) Writing, in contrast, has often been associated with privacy, secrecy and solitude, as Brandt asserts.

Writing is also associated not with workplace forms but with poetry and fiction. A question that comes to mind is that if a persistent narrative around writing is that the only creative writing is fiction and poetry, and if families do not see themselves as skilled in this way, how can they encourage writing in all of its forms as a family value? Brandt notes that in her hundreds of interviews with families, people rarely remembered writing around parents. For many families, being a writer is not seen as a valuable trade -- it’s the stuff of fiction.

What persists are damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity that continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity. Consider the famous joke that “those who can’t do teach,” which parodies the work of people dedicated to fostering creative thinking in others, which requires them, also, to be constantly creating. Or consider that teachers and professors are almost always depicted in popular culture as practitioners, not talent.

For instance, in the 2015 film Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Nick Offerman plays a bumbling sociology professor whose intellectual contribution to his field is portrayed solely via his penchant for wearing “tribal” clothing from around the world. His son characterizes him as a person who basically sits around a lot. When faculty members aren’t being ridiculed in popular culture, all sorts of other problematic stereotypes are propagated, such as the effectiveness of white teachers or teacher figures inspiring at-risk or inner-city students and/or students of color to be “creative” by writing fiction or poetry. (See, for example, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase.) Try to imagine those movies teaching writing skills that would actually potentially be valuable in today’s marketplace.

In Dead Poets Society, we even see the symbolic gesture of a teacher tearing up the syllabus, perhaps imagined to be the dullest of literary genres. But as a material representation of a 16-week experience, it is, I would argue, one of the most creative and rewarding of writing forms. Indeed, if creative writing is about world creation, as many people contend it is (although that, too, is debatable), what is closer to this than the creation of a new experience?

How did the field of creative writing, and the public’s idea about this type of writing, emerge? In The Elephants Teach, D. G. Myers traces the origins of this term, the genre and the workshop that has become the standard in English departments across America. Myers presents ample evidence that the institutionalized field of creative writing barely resembles the ideals and movement that produced it in the 1920s, when it exploded in popularity largely due to the writings of educator William Hughes Mearns. Mearns developed and popularized what’s considered to be the first creative writing workshop for junior high school students. He was tired of English courses that used literature as a means of drilling students on vocabulary or grammar or as some other means to an end.

Mearns proposed the practice of writing literary texts for self-expression, so that kids would enjoy literature, and for promoting an understanding of literature by writing it. His description of his creative workshop spread quickly and was rapidly adopted across the United States, largely because he traveled throughout the country presenting the model to teachers and schools and then published student work in various texts that were also publicly devoured.

However, according to Myers, in contrast with current conceptions of writing that treat fiction and poetry as more cultured than genres such as workplace writing, emails, lists or even theses, Mearns would not have abided by a view of creative writing as somehow more cultured or valuable. Neither would the prominent progressive educator John Dewey, Mearns’s influencer.

In fact, both Dewey and Mearns were highly critical of the notion of “culture,” which seemed to be a means of discriminating against the masses for abilities that people held due to various privileges and advantages (such as speaking “proper” English). Myers demonstrates how the rise of creative writing paralleled the rise of post-World War II college enrollments due to the GI Bill, as well as the rise of federal student aid. The growth of creative writing programs also divorced creative writing from its study of literary texts, and the field emerged as one that -- rather than training future writers -- trained future teachers of fiction and poetry. He notes that “Creative writing was devised as an explicit solution to an explicit problem. It was an effort to integrate literary knowledge with literary practice,” but that “what had begun as an alternative to the schismatizing of literary study had ended as merely another schism.” Now, English departments are divided, with the study of fiction and poetry quite divorced from other parts of the program.

An effect of popular attitudes about writing is that much public, popular and workplace writing is devalued, despite its ubiquity, importance, creativity and potency. The division impacts so-called nonfiction, too (a genre defined by a lack). As Barbara Tuchman articulates, “I see no reason why the word ‘literature’ should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘nonfiction’ -- as if we were some sort of remainder.”

Too often, binaries are leaned on in order to praise one thing and devalue another. This is the case with the phrase “creative writing” and just about every form of writing that is set apart from it. And also too often, what’s placed on the other side of the binary is work that is “critical” in nature. Consider an article by scholar and literature professor Graeme Harper, who, in championing the creative writing workshop, repeatedly utters sentences like these: “[My students] are required to write both creatively and critically.” When the critical is opposed to the creative, it’s easy to understand why public attitudes, and even those of academics and other writers who produce critical work, are so pervasively seen as uncreative.

Over the years, the students with whom I have worked, and particularly those who see me in the writing center, have reported that after I talk with them about some of these ideas, and after they begin thinking of themselves as writers, their positive feelings about writing intensify. No one wants to feel that the daily work they do is valueless, dull, uncreative. And everyone should be able to access an identity that they are proud of related to their trade.

I am concerned that narratives about what it means to be creative and a creative writer are to blame for much of what I’ve described. I’ve seen this in the various departments in which I’ve worked, where certain faculty members spurn the fields of professional writing and writing studies and reinforce the idea that teaching poetry, fiction and even literary analysis are somehow more desirable.

I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of “creative writing” in titling disciplines, tracks and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of Writing Studies, Writing or Writing Arts. In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo writers, proposal writers and list writers. And I want them to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry.

It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to stop using the pernicious phrase “creative writing.” To produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry. And to expand our fundamental ideas about what it means to be creative.

Cydney Alexis is an assistant professor of English and writing center director at Kansas State University. You can find her on Twitter at @cydneyalexis. This is the first in a series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. The essays are being published this spring as an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries -- in which scholars and writing instructors identify bad ideas and suggest more productive, inclusive and useful ones.

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Hiring of economics Ph.D.s appears strong as 2017 starts

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While Ph.D.s in many fields face a tight job market, economics is thriving.

Drexel condemns professor's tweet about white genocide

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University issues statement on Christmas Day over post that said, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Update: Professor criticizes response to "satirical" comment.

Part-Time Professors at Hartford Vote to Unionize

Part-time faculty members at the University of Hartford have voted to unionize, The Hartford Courant reported. The new union is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. The vote to unionize was 278 to 230. The university said it would negotiate with the new union, but also noted that many of the 850 adjuncts eligible to vote didn't do so.

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Harvard Vote on TA Union Is Inconclusive

A majority of counted votes of Harvard University graduate students were against forming a union for teaching and research assistants, but the number of contested ballots is greater than the margin. That means that the National Labor Relations Board will determine the status of the contested ballots and will then make a final determination. Hearings are expected in January. A statement by the United Auto Workers unit organizing at Harvard said that an initial count found 1,272 graduate students voted for unionization and 1,456 against, while there were 314 contested ballots.

"While this news is not what we were hoping for today, our work is not over," said a statement from the UAW. "From the beginning, we have had concerns about Harvard's eligible voter list, and we are looking into its potential impact on the election results. We will continue to work to make sure that eligible voters who cast ballots subject to challenge have their votes counted."

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Republicans Legislators Object to Course on Racism

Two Wisconsin Republican legislators have threatened to withhold state funds from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in relation to a planned course on racism called The Problem of Whiteness. State Representative Dave Murphy has also called on the university to fire the professor in charge of the course over his tweets, saying that some condone violence against police officers.

"The state has a lot of different priorities when it comes to funding things," Murphy told the Wisconsin State Journal. "Is funding a course that’s about ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ … a high priority? I’ve got a feeling it’s not.”

Wisconsin Senator Steve Nass also criticized the planned course in a statement. "Madison must discontinue this class," he said. "If [Madison] stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with [Madison]."

The university defended the course, saying in a separate statement, “The course title refers to the challenge of understanding white identity and nonwhite identity across the globe.” The course is not mandatory, according to the university, and “will benefit students who are interested in developing a deeper understanding of race issues.” Murphy also criticized the professor’s tweets, including ones he posted in July after a gunman killed police officers in Dallas.

Murphy said that Damon Sajnani, the assistant professor of African cultural studies in question, should be fired for the "vile" tweets, according to the State Journal. Sajnani declined an interview, citing "the preponderance of white supremacist backlash against myself and the [university] community."

In response, Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf said the university "supports the First Amendment rights of its students, faculty and staff, including their use of social media tools to express their views on race, politics or other topics, in their capacity as a private citizen."

 

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Kentucky professor says he was found guilty of harassment for singing "California Girls," but institution says charges are more serious

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University of Kentucky professor says he was found guilty of sexual harassment for singing "California Girls" at a Chinese educational event, but the institution says the charges against him are more serious.

Freshman announces he's dropping out of Kansas State and sets off debate on general education

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A freshman who says he has a 4.0 announces his plans to drop out and denounces college as a scam -- setting off a debate on his soon-to-be-former campus and elsewhere.

Columbia Challenges Union Vote by Grad Students

Columbia University is challenging a recent vote by its graduate student employees to unionize, The New York Times reported. The complaint to the National Labor Relations Board says that "known union agents" were standing closer to polling places than allowed, and that voters should have been required to present identification. Graduate student leaders say the vote was valid and Columbia is trying to drag out the dispute so that a Trump administration NLRB, with new members, might remove the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize.

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