Interview with editors of 'The American Yawp,' a free history textbook published online

"I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," Walt Whitman declares in Leaves of Grass. How he ended the line without an exclamation point always puzzled me, but maybe it was implicit. The poet sang "the body electric," and every line was meant to zap the reader into a higher state of awareness.

Whitman would have been pleased to see the new American history textbook called The American Yawp -- and not just for its allusive title. As a sometime school teacher and educational reformer, he wanted "free, ample and up-to-date textbooks, preferably by the best historians" (to quote one discussion of this aspect of the poet's life). Yawp's 30 chapters cover American history from the last ice age through the appearance of the millennial generation. It has plenty about the founders and the origins of the U.S., but avoids a triumphalist tone and includes material on inequality -- including economic inequality -- throughout. It was prepared through the collaborative efforts of scores of historians. And the creators have published it online, for free.

The beta version was released, with no fanfare at all, at the start of the current academic year. By the fall, a revision will be issued in e-book format, suitable for use in an undergraduate survey course -- again, for free. Walt would surely approve.

I contacted the editors -- Joseph Locke, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria, and Ben Wright, an assistant professor of history and political science at the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in south Georgia -- to find out more about The American Yawp. They collaborated in responding to my questions by e-mail. A transcript of the discussion follows.

Q: How did you go about writing (assembling?) your textbook? Did you collaborate via Listservs? Were there any face-to-face meetings?

A: Traditional textbooks usually begin with a single editor or a small team of editors searching for some unifying theme to tie together the many thematic strands of American history. Instead, we mirrored the way our profession already works. We believed that a narrative synthesis could emerge through the many innovations of our profession’s various subfields no less than through a preselected central theme. We therefore looked to a large and diverse yet loosely coordinated group of contributors to construct a narrative.

We began by mapping out potential contributions for all 30 chapters based on our experiences teaching the survey and in informal conversations with colleagues and potential chapter editors. We came up with things like “500 words on the election of 1860” and “300 words on the music and art of the Civil War.” We compiled these into lists.

Then, after tapping into the networks of scholars we knew, as well as scouring recent editions of major history journals, combing through lists of recent dissertations, browsing the rosters of university programs with traditional strengths in particular eras and soliciting contributors through social media and H-Net’s many history Listservs, we targeted scholars to write on these themes.

We had no trouble recruiting an adequate pool of qualified contributors. In fact, we ended up with over 300 historians writing for the project. This work was done almost exclusively online.

Q: Was it a matter of one person preparing a draft chapter and then other participants proposing changes?

A: Since a textbook should be more than a series of brief, disjointed topical entries, we began the work of synthesis. We recruited talented writers and scholars as chapter editors who went to work stitching submissions into coherent chapters. We then reviewed and edited drafts of all 30 chapters, particularly with an eye on ensuring greater narrative cohesion across the text.

During our beta year, we are soliciting feedback not only from our esteemed board of editorial advisers but from contributors and users through our parallel Comment Press platform. With that feedback in hand, we will publish a refined version of the text and begin a second phase that incorporates interactive digital content and further explores what a digital textbook is truly capable of.

Q: Are you aware of anyone teaching with the beta version? Have you had commitments from individuals or departments to use it during the next academic year?

A: Students are currently working with the text at a variety of institutions ranging from major state universities (such as the University of Georgia and the University of Florida) to various community colleges (such as Central New Mexico Community College and Bronx Community College) and everything in between (Rice University, Georgia State University, the University of Texas at Dallas and others). We don’t solicit formal commitments for use, but we’ve already heard from additional instructors and history departments hoping to adopt the text next fall. We are historians, not marketers, but we believe continued positive feedback and our formal launch in the fall will also encourage additional adoptions.

Q: In the culture wars, American history is one of the more harried battlegrounds. Did that factor into the textbook’s preparation in any way?

A: We believe history should be written by historians. We have no interest in the culture war, beyond mitigating the way that some have used it to wildly distort the past. Instead, we've trusted in our profession; our desire has been to reflect all the very best of contemporary scholarship.

On the other hand, we have been conscious about how to properly synthesize the American past. What gets included, and what doesn't? This is a difficult issue and we have enlisted the historical profession to help guide us. And we remain open to critical feedback.

Q: The talk page of a Wikipedia entry tends to become a forum for debate, informed and otherwise. Yawp is not in wiki format, of course, but will the comments component be moderated?

A: We've seen very little rancor in our Comment Press platform. Disagreements have mostly taken the form of highly specialized critiques. Historians are argumentative, but we've been pleased to see that all have followed the standards of professional decorum. We therefore haven't had any plans to moderate discussions. And, unlike a wiki, disruptive comments would not be able to filter into the text without editorial decisions.

Q: It seems as if The American Yawp could serve as a model for other textbooks. Is that the plan?

A: Our model is completely reproducible. We've accomplished this without institutions, grants or rarefied technological know-how.  And we very much hope that others will follow our example. We already know, for example, that within our own profession there is quite a bit of interest for a similar project in world history.

Q: A commercially produced textbook can be financially rewarding for everybody involved in its creation, and it counts on an author's CV. These seem like powerful incentives for stasis. What would it take for your mode of textbook production to establish itself as viable over the long run?

A: Of course, a commercially produced textbook is not financially rewarding for everybody involved -- it is often quite financially punitive for our students. (The College Board, for instance, found that the typical student now spends $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.) And outside of a few textbooks written by a few academics for a few major presses, financial rewards can be extremely limited for textbook producers.

Still, the reputational economics of academia do matter. Professional consideration of projects such as this will certainly shift as academia continues to adjust to the digital age, but we also did not embark upon the project for economic or professional gain. This has been and will continue to be a labor of love. We entered the historical profession because we believe there is a moral imperative to study the American past and to share that knowledge with students and with the public. The rising costs of higher education makes that difficult. Academics recognize this, and we believe that's why over 300 academic historians were so willing to participate in this project.

We believe our model is viable in the long term. This is not a start-up having to satisfy investors or foundation boards. This is simply a collective of historians who have come together to share the knowledge of our profession. That doesn't mean certain developments couldn't further secure the long-term viability of projects such as this, of course. For instance, we have been looking into possible partnerships with innovative university presses to help satisfy the very reputational implications you cited.

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Advice for a young black woman in academe about not being called Doctor


A young black female academic notices that students call her colleagues Doctor or Professor, but she is addressed by her first name. Kerry Ann Rockquemore reviews her options.

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Author discusses new book about her study and participation in "figure girl" competitions

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Feminist art history professor discusses book on how she came to study and participate in a form of bodybuilding called "figure girl" competitions.

Essay calling for a new teaching-oriented model of tenure

Thanks largely to adjunct activists throughout North America, there is a growing awareness outside academe that colleges and universities are treating faculty members off the tenure track in deplorable ways. The past few years have seen a number of searing exposés of adjunct working conditions, and significant progress in organizing adjuncts into collective bargaining units.

But even among those of us who want to improve the lot of contingent faculty members, there are disagreements. The most important of these, I think, concerns the question of whether the tenure system has any relevance in this discussion. Many contingent faculty are convinced that it does not; as contingent faculty member Josh Boldt memorably put it, he has “99 problems but tenure ain’t one.”

I first realized that this was a problem about five years ago, when I had a ringside seat for a disagreement between the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors (in 2010 and 2011 I served on the governing boards of both organizations).

Marc Bousquet, a key player in that debate, has recently created a Web site, MLA Democracy, devoted to making the MLA more activist on academic labor issues, and his account of that disagreement charges that the MLA sought to shrink the tenure system dramatically:

"[U]nder [Executive Director Rosemary] Feal’s leadership, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce has actually begun to move backward on employment issues, recommending that tenure be reserved for faculty teaching graduate education and some upper-division courses."

Elsewhere on the MLA Democracy Web site, Bousquet cites the sentence from the 2010 CAW report, “One Faculty Serving All Students,” that gives rise to his claim that the MLA seeks to restrict tenure to certain classes of faculty:

"The number of tenure lines should be sufficient to cover courses in the upper-division undergraduate and graduate curricula and to ensure an appropriate presence of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the lower division."

When the CAW report was released, Bousquet criticized this provision. Since he had very recently coauthored an American Association of University Professors report, “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions,” that conflicted with the CAW report by recommending across-the-board conversions to the tenure track, he successfully argued that the AAUP should not endorse the CAW report. As Bousquet told Inside Higher Ed at the time, he agreed with “90 percent” of the CAW recommendations. But the remaining 10 percent was serious business.

The sticking point was this: What does “appropriate presence” mean in the CAW report? It is a standard wide enough to drive many truckloads of adjuncts through. In rhetoric and composition programs, most importantly, an “appropriate presence” might be understood as “just enough tenured or tenure-track faculty to administer legions of adjuncts, say, maybe two.” These would be the writing program administrators James Sledd famously dubbed “boss compositionists,” and it is at least arguable that the CAW report, in vaguely calling for an “appropriate presence” of tenured and tenure-track faculty in lower-division courses, was inattentive to the fact that the phrase could be read so generously as to license widespread English department practices whereby composition is relegated to the most contingent faculty -- and foreign-language department practices whereby basic language instruction is relegated to the most contingent faculty -- all of whom are overseen by one or two tenured managers.

So Bousquet was right to object to the language of the CAW report five years ago. Today, he is quite needlessly wrong to claim that the CAW report argues against granting tenure to faculty teaching lower-division courses. Still, the point of conflict between the AAUP and CAW reports is a critical one, and it has only become more important in the intervening years: What is to be done about the vast legions of faculty off the tenure track? What is to be done about the deprofessionalization of the profession?

In our forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Jennifer Ruth and I try to offer an answer. We propose a teaching-intensive tenure track for contingent faculty. It would constitute an extension (and, we think, a revitalization) of the tenure system, with tenure awarded on the basis of successful teaching, as determined by tenured colleagues within the institution. It would thereby give contingent faculty members access to meaningful peer review -- and substantial job security.

We draw in part on the AAUP “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions” statement, because we agree that for many contingent faculty, employment security in the form of multiyear contracts does not offer the kind of academic freedom necessary for meaningful participation in shared governance. We think the AAUP report describes such contracts accurately: “a potentially crippling development in these arrangements is that many -- while improving on the entirely insecure positions they replace -- offer limited conceptions of academic citizenship and service, few protections for academic freedom, and little opportunity for professional growth.”

But we differ with the AAUP report in one important respect, because we see a tension in that report that leaves a critical question unanswered. The AAUP report recommends:

"The best practice for institutions of all types is to convert the status of contingent appointments to appointments eligible for tenure with only minor changes in job description. This means that faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenured or tenure eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching."

But the AAUP report had earlier noted, correctly, that “the ways in which contingent teachers and researchers are hired, evaluated and promoted often bypass the faculty entirely and are generally less rigorous than the intense review applied to faculty in tenurable positions.” So, in other words, you’ve got a lot of people who may very well be excellent teachers and dedicated professionals, but who were not vetted by any system of professional review. In order to be converted to a tenure track, they need some system of peer review; as the AAUP report has it, “faculty hired contingently with teaching as the major component of their workload will become tenured or tenure eligible primarily on the basis of successful teaching.”

Unfortunately, the AAUP report is silent about the fact that many full-time contingent faculty members do not have terminal degrees in their field. This is especially striking because the person who has done the definitive work on this subject, the person who has argued most strenuously that the Ph.D. is the appropriate credential for college teaching (at least at four-year institutions), is Marc Bousquet.

Bousquet put it well in How the University Works: when “degree holding no longer represents control over who may practice,” the result is “a failed monopoly of professional labor.”

This is one of the reasons that graduate education is in crisis. We have effectively created a system in which we insist that the doctorate is necessary for employment in college classrooms, except when it isn’t. Bousquet initially made his name as an analyst of academic labor by pointing out, in opposition to knee-jerk invocations of “supply and demand,” that there is no “overproduction” of Ph.D.s in the United States; on the contrary, if the Ph.D. were taken seriously as a necessary credential for college teaching, there would be an undersupply of Ph.D.s. Ph.D.s are not being overproduced, they are being underhired -- by a system that employs M.A.s and A.B.D.s at low, low wages and creates an artificially restricted market for new Ph.D.s.

As early as 1998, Bousquet argued that disciplinary associations like the MLA should bar non-Ph.D.s from academic employment: “Graduate students don't need the MLA's help in finding nonteaching work,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education, explaining his opposition to “alt-ac” career paths. “Graduate students need the MLA to make sure that people holding Ph.D. degrees are doing the teaching in today’s college classrooms.”

The problem with this is that the MLA, unlike the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association, is not a credentializing or credential-checking body. It has no means of enforcing any edict about faculty members who do not hold terminal degrees, no way to screen the qualifications of 1.5 million faculty members nationwide.

But the problem is real. So how best to address it?

Jennifer Ruth and I argue that the profession devolved into academic serfdom and patronage systems department by department, bypassing systems of peer review and hiring people ad hoc over the course of many years -- and we argue that this is how we will have to turn it around, department by department. Our teaching-intensive tenure track would give priority to the holders of terminal degrees (including M.F.A.s in creative writing and the performing and visual arts), because we believe Bousquet was right about this from the start. The deprofessionalization of the profession is underwritten by the undermining of the Ph.D. It is telling that more rigorous professions such as law and medicine have no similar arrangement by which people who completed most, but not all, of the credentializing process are licensed to practice.

Jennifer and I are well aware that our proposal will not meet with universal acclaim. We hope it will be greeted by new and recent Ph.D.s, but we know it will probably be dismissed outright by many at two-year colleges, who see the Ph.D. as a research degree that is irrelevant to their missions. But we believe it offers a way to create the teaching-intensive tenure track envisioned by the AAUP while addressing the problem unmentioned in the AAUP report -- the problem identified by Bousquet over 15 years ago, and unacknowledged by anyone since. And we believe it offers a solution to the crisis confronting new and recent Ph.D.s, who find themselves with a degree that is too often ignored or devalued in the ad hoc hiring system that deprofessionalizes college teaching.

We are also aware that many adjunct activists are following a different path, seeking better salaries and multiyear contracts without tenure. The Service Employees International Union's Faculty Forward campaign is exemplary in this regard, setting an aspirational goal of $15,000 per course (in salary and benefits) for contingent faculty, as is the program popularly known as the Vancouver Plan, devised by Jack Longmate and Frank Cosco, based largely on Cosco’s experience at Vancouver Community College. And there is no question that better salaries and multiyear contracts would constitute significant improvements in the working lives of thousands of contingent faculty. So why do we insist on a teaching-intensive tenure track instead?

Because, as I noted above, academic freedom is absolutely necessary for shared governance, and many contingent faculty want to be involved in shared governance. It is intolerable to exclude contingent faculty from shared governance, because that leaves them vulnerable, subject to administrative whim and caprice.

And yet it is also intolerable to incorporate contingent faculty into shared governance without the protections of tenure, because that leaves them even more vulnerable, subject to administrative whim and caprice -- and retribution for something they said or did on this or that committee. Sooner or later, and very likely sooner, a faculty member on contract who works in an ostensibly democratic department is going to find him- or herself faced with supporting or opposing the person who writes contracts, or the person who is close friends with the person who writes contracts, or the person who might succeed the person who writes contracts.

That’s the point at which the ostensibly democratic department begins to devolve into a patronage system. As Don Eron, a long-term contingent faculty member at the University of Colorado at Boulder and member of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure says, “Multiyear contracts are guaranteed to keep a faculty docile. Having to constantly reapply for one's job actively discourages the academic freedom that tenure is designed to protect.”

Jennifer Ruth and I agree. And we would add that students have an important stake in this as well, insofar as their professors should be able to make decisions about curriculum and pedagogy without worrying whether those decisions will put them out of a job, and insofar as the people teaching those lower-division courses should have the same protections as everybody else.

We can’t lay out all the details of our proposal here (the full plan is in the appendix to our book), but we can say that under that plan, contingent faculty members with more than seven years of service would keep their jobs if they want them. But contingent faculty members who want the job security and academic freedom that tenure provides, and who have terminal degrees in their fields, would be offered a path to what Eron calls “instructor tenure,” and we call a teaching-intensive tenure track.

To critics who would claim that our plan creates a two-tiered system in academe, we can only say yes, yes, it does: there would be two tiers of tenured faculty. And it would be vastly superior to the unstable and vicious three-tiered system we have now, in which only one dwindling tier has any hope of tenure and academic freedom.

Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University.

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Essay on what to ask when it's your turn for questions in an academic job interview

Melissa Dennihy reviews what to ask and what not to ask a search committee during an interview.

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Unnamed Adjunct Behind National Walkout Day Isn't Hiding Her Identity Anymore

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Leah Griesmann, who came up with the idea for National Adjunct Walkout Day, isn't hiding her identity anymore. So what does she think about last week's protests, and about what's next for adjunct activism?

Rhodes College professor finds himself targeted by ISIS

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Academic at Rhodes College, who in the past has been criticized by right-wing American groups, is featured in magazine of the Islamic State as example of an apostate who should be killed.

Colleges award tenure

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The following individuals have recently been awarded tenure by their colleges and universities:

Cedarville University

  • Elisha Injeti, pharmaceutical science
  • Austin Jacquith, music theory and composition
  • Sandra Yang, music history

Colby College

Essay on pregnancy issues in academic job searches


Joseph Barber considers the questions about when a job candidate may want to reveal and what to say.

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Essay on teaching the global one percent

Charged €1,000 ($1,140) for damage to two rooms and the destruction of another family’s possessions, Mohammed giggled and explained, “No problem, I buy them.” Over the past 4 weeks, the boys who shared room 305, Mohammed, a 16-year-old Tehrani, and his kindred spirit, Vlad, a 17-year-old Muscovite, had built a tender friendship. (I have changed all names to protect the anonymity of the school, students and faculty.) They sought my acknowledgment in every way they could, both benignly by gifting me Haribo gummy bears, and also by provoking my anger by prank calling in the middle of the night. Eventually they settled on a new plea for attention: running water taps. What began with a running faucet culminated in the flooding of their hotel room and the one below it.

Camped in a four-star resort in a one-street Alpine village, the institute where Mohammed and Vlad were studying English caters unabashedly to the global 1 percent. Accommodations feature five-course meals, king-size beds and a choice of four saunas. With parents at the helms of Russian petroleum companies, Swiss banks and Brazilian multinationals, these students are both extraordinarily wealthy and remarkably maladjusted. Some -- like Vlad -- have the acute (and not inaccurate) sense they’ve been quarantined while their parents gallivant around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Others, such as Mohammed, have been raised by fawning tutors who have inculcated them with a profound overestimation of their talents in language -- and everything else.

Financial necessity led me to the institute. My graduate stipend pays only enough to support me during the academic year, and I needed summer funding. My preparation to teach freshman writing at my university entailed a semester of intensive pedagogical training, replete with sample assignments, reading materials and instruction strategies. At the institute, I received a dated Oxford textbook (in which beepers were cited as new technology) and a stiff drink purchased for me by the director the night before I was to begin. With little sense of what to expect from this new pedagogical environment, I immediately began to develop a diagnostic to sort a cohort of students, some of whom would stay for a week, others two, and others the entire month, with new students enrolling each week. My class size ranged from 3 students (in the final week doldrums) to 15 at the height of the program.

With four hours of daily instruction to fill and no practical ELL (English language learners) experience, I relied on two fellow English instructors, who generously provided me with lessons and exercises. My lessons often failed. Once, I asked students to describe their home bedrooms. Each one took a turn speaking while the others drew illustrations based upon this description. This exercise, which I intended to hone locational vocabulary, failed because students didn’t know how to describe or depict “bedrooms” that occupied multiple rooms and, sometimes, entire floors. On another occasion, I asked students to create a brochure for a dream school. I intended for my students to apply educational vocabulary. Instead, they submitted descriptions of shopping malls, glutted with Gucci, Prada and Boss boutiques.

The same thing happened during extramural activities as well. The institute featured daily instructional excursions, about which students were encouraged to write copiously in weekly postcards to family. (The excursions were of such import that I was asked to allocate a weekly lesson to postcard writing.)  We visited some of Western Europe’s most impressive cultural destinations, including Munich, Salzburg and St. Gallen. On an excursion to Brixen, Italy, students performed what was for me an all too familiar ritual: they retreated to a Starbucks to watch YouTube videos. Offered the choice to visit a castle or an outlet mall nearby, all but one voted to shop. Some students called the outlet their favorite destination of the month.

I loathed their lack of curiosity, but mostly I lurched between detachment and exasperation. I was far busier than I had anticipated, and after a 12-hour day I found it easy to dislike my students. I skipped group lunches for the relief of solitary walks and siphoned precious sleep time to study for my coming qualifying exams. My colleagues, many of whom were full-time students or high-school teachers, commiserated but could not relate. To them, the institute provided a lucrative means to a holiday that they not otherwise afford. They didn’t overthink it.

My detachment and exasperation gave way to defiance. If tutors or teachers wouldn’t correct student misbehaviors, I, as the graduate student with little to lose, would compel these students to acknowledge the humanity of those around them. As the institute’s tenderfoot, I was primarily responsible for the largest and most disruptive cohort, the Russian boys, who threatened me with retribution by their familial connections. (The Russian mob notwithstanding, I had a hard time taking that seriously.) I intervened at a dinner when Vlad mocked a gay student. I intervened when Mohammed poured his soda on the ground (because it was diet). I intervened when the Russians spoke Russian in English class and when the Brazilians wandered off on their own during excursions. Gradually, some students reluctantly changed behaviors.

Mohammed and Vlad, both of whom I had in class, changed most dramatically. After receiving failing grades on their first exams (perhaps the first F’s ever assigned at the institute), they began to worry -- and take notes. I used their camaraderie to cultivate a productive rivalry, awarding daily lesson “championships,” more choice of assignments and even the chance to teach units.

I also learned more about them. Vlad shared a photo of himself, his father, and a brand-new Mercedes-Benz -- the only photo of him with his dad. Mohammed’s father, on the other hand, applied so much pressure to his firstborn son that the young man suffers chronic health problems, including an eating disorder. Both of the boys of room 305 were boisterous, privileged and unaware. They were also children who were, despite their luxurious lives, unhappy.

I gradually realized I had misread my students. If Brixen was a hop away in a private jet, there could be nothing inherently special about it. Like the social media-addicted students I taught at home, these teens craved a sense of belonging, which they achieved by wearing the same labels, watching the same mass media and locating themselves via Starbucks and smartphones. When they didn’t feel they belonged, they behaved like puppies that hadn’t been housebroken: they broke rules, sneaked out and destroyed rooms. I sometimes felt I was succeeding in domesticating my cohort.

By the end of the program, Vlad and Mohammed visited my room to acknowledge me as their instructor (to prove they were doing homework) and mentor (to learn how to tie a tie). However, those very same students cheated on their final exam and flooded their hotel room. I couldn’t ascertain whether I was dealing with accident-prone pets or young sociopaths. Nor was I confident that I was a suitable trainer. The very transience and poverty that equipped me to confront their misbehaviors also formed a boundary against any kind of meaningful or lasting connection with these future plutocrats. It also made me doubt that I, their teacher, could change them.

For one of our final excursions, I took my students back to the outlet mall. It was the equivalent of letting the foxes into the Gucci henhouse, but given my exhaustion, I let them gorge. And they did. I brought a book and read on a lawn chair at Lafuma while the students maxed out their parental credit cards on what everyone agreed to call souvenirs. When it came time to leave, the van couldn’t accommodate the bags, so Mohammed and Vlad stacked Armani, Dior and Boss boxes high on their laps. For the next two hours, boxes tumbled across the backseats as we wove up serpentine roads to our town. By the time we arrived at the resort several hours later, it was dark and the boys were ecstatic to escape the van. They left behind their souvenirs.

At dinner, I asked Mohammed if he had found what he wanted. He shrugged and asked me what I bought. I told him I didn’t need anything. He looked at me as though he didn’t understand. He told me he would buy me a new suit on our next trip.

Will Fenton is director of the Writing Center at Fordham University Lincoln Center, a teaching fellow and a doctoral candidate of English at Fordham University, where he specializes in 19th-century American literature and the digital humanities.

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