Saturday, December 20, 2014

December 20-21, 2014: Spring 2015 Preview

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations; that has led up to this weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d still love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections and/or Spring 2015 plans in comments!]
Five things I’m looking forward to in the New Year and its new semester:
1)      My First AHA Presentation: Other than some celebrating with the boys, my first act of 2015 will be to travel to New York, where I’ll be presenting as part of a panel on short-form scholarship at the American Historical Association Conference. It’s way past time for this AmericanStudier to connect to the most significant American history conference, and I’m very excited to attend for the first time.
2)      A New (To Me) Course: After a semester in which I only taught one American literature course, I’ll be returning to American lit with a vengeance: two sections of American Literature II (1865-present), one of Major American Authors of the 20th Century, and one of a senior seminar I’ll be teaching for the first time: The Romantic Movement in the U.S. While I enjoy the Romantics, I decided to broaden the class slightly: renaming it The Romantic Period in the U.S. and focusing on multiple genres and contexts for the 1830-1865 era. I’ll share more details in the spring!
3)      My Next ALFA Course: I’ve blogged before about my experiences with the wonderful ALFA program—it’s been over a year since I got to teach an ALFA course, and am very excited to do so in the spring. I decided to focus on the topic of my next book project: five nominees for the Hall of American Inspiration. I can’t wait to share these inspiring Americans and some of their writings and voices with the ALFA students.
4)      A Return to Toronto: In late April I’ll be back in Toronto, helping run NeMLA’s 2015 Conference (the last one before my own conference as President, in Hartford in 2016), hopefully delivering another talk at the University of Toronto’s Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library, and definitely exploring this wonderful city further.
5)      Who Knows?: I’ve got other good stuff on the horizon: a book talk as part of ALFA’s Food for Thought program,  the next NEASA Colloquium, and more. But many of the best things over the last few years have arisen unexpectedly, and I’d like to leave some room for that to continue to happen. When they do arise, you can be assured I’ll update you here—and I hope you’ll do the same, now and going forward!
Next series starts Monday,

PS. Any reflections or plans you’d share?

Friday, December 19, 2014

December 19, 2014: Semester Recaps: Three Other Reflections

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
Three other quick thoughts on aspects of my fall semester (not including the De Lange conference, about which see this week’s series of posts!):
1)      I Have A Lot to Learn about Canada: My two book talks in Toronto went incredibly well, largely due to the very gracious hosts at each site. And they left me with numerous aspects of Canadian history and identity into which I need to look further, both for the many ways they interestingly parallel U.S. histories and identities and for many provocative differences. To name one interesting such duality: Canada has its own Chinese Exclusion Act (1923), one that parallels the U.S. law in most respects; but because Canada only became fully independent from England in the late 20th century, many of its overall histories of immigration, citizenship, and related legal and social issues are hugely distinct from those of the U.S. I look forward to learning more!
2)      Strategic Planning Matters: Sure, I knew in an abstract way that FSU’s Strategic Planning process, on which I had the chance to work this fall as part of the Academic Values Working Group, represented a significant series of conversations and documents. But here’s an example of a far more tangible product of my Working Group’s efforts than I was expecting: we decided to make support for faculty work (both research and service) one of the values we believe FSU should embody, and so recommended specific and substantive improvements to the university’s release-time policies to provide such support. We’ll see whether and how that becomes part of the overall Strategic Plan—but our own conversations and statements (which are on the record) represent an important contribution in any case, it seems to me.
3)      My Colleagues Rock: Like the lesson about public school teachers I highlighted in yesterday’s post, this is something I’ve known for a long time. But this fall I felt it anew, for lots of reasons but I’ll highlight this one: two of my FSU English Studies colleagues, Joe Moser and Frank Mabee, were on sabbatical, pursuing their own next projects and enjoying some well-deserved rejuventation time. I hope they’ve been great semesters for both (maybe they’ll share some details in comments!), but I’ve missed them greatly, and I’ll sure be glad to have them back come January.
Spring plans this weekend,

PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 18, 2014: Semester Recaps: Intro to Speech

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
Three reflections at the end of my first semester teaching Intro to Speech.
1)      We All Have More to Learn: Yes, I gave sample versions of the Persuasive and Informational Speeches I required of my students—but those were on Bruce Springsteen and the Wilmington Coup and Massacre, respectively, so I felt pretty comfortable with each. But one of the Thursday evening classes happened to take place immediately before I delivered my first Pecha Kucha presentation, with and during which I felt much, much less comfortable. A good reminder of how much, when it comes to speech or any other skill, we all can and must continue to learn and grow.
2)      But We Also Know More than We Think: As I wrote in the above-linked Fall Preview post, as the semester commenced I felt distinctly unsure about how to teach an Intro to Speech course. But as we got into the work of the course, and especially as we talked about tips and strategies related to both kinds of speeches specifically and the art of presentation more broadly, I realized that much of my professional work, from teaching and conference talks to my last year and a half of book talks, has prepared me quite directly for teaching this particular topic. It definitely helped that I had chosen a very clear and practical textbook to accompany those conversations. But my own experiences became a more and more overt part of our discussions and work as well, and that was a good reminder of what they have helped me learn.
3)      Public School Teachers Are Awesome: True, my own family, as well as my experiences as a student, have long since taught me this lesson. And true, in my Graduate English courses at FSU I’ve taught many secondary educators, all of whom have reinforced this perspective. But the students in this course represented a community with whom I hadn’t had a chance to work previously: vocational educators, teaching at the course’s site (Monty Tech) as well as many other regional vocational high schools. Through their persuasive and informative speeches, as well as through many other aspects of our discussions and their voices, I got to learn a great deal about their teaching and work, and all that they bring to them. And sure enough, I have one more semester’s worth of evidence for the awesomeness of our public educators.
Last recap tomorrow,

PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December 17, 2014: Semester Recaps: Senior Capstone

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On the best answer I can think of to the question “What can you do with an English degree?”
I love teaching our senior English Studies Capstone course. I love the chance to read their senior portfolios, in which the students pull together writing pieces, projects, and other work across many different genres, types, stages, and skills; it gives me a chance to get to know these graduating majors in a way I would never otherwise be able to. I love having a space where we can just talk about some of the topics and questions at the heart of our discipline: what writing is and why we do it; how literature works and what it does to and for us; the challenges, frustrations, and possibilities of education; and many more. Perhaps most of all, I love teaching a course that embodies my student-driven teaching philosophy so fully that I can’t even plan out many aspects of the class until I’ve met this particular cohort and started to figure out what they most need.
But this semester, as we worked on another element to my version of Capstone—conversations about and preparations for their next professional steps, including both career options and graduate school possibilities—I realized that teaching Capstone offers another unique pleasure: the chance to gain specific, detailed, evolving evidence for just how many different futures one can pursue with an English degree. In thinking about students from my prior Capstone sections (to share their successes with my current students), I began to realize the breadth of their current situations: from PhD candidates (in both the U.S. and the U.K.!) to educators at every level; from those teaching in South Korea and Japan to those running their own editing and freelance writing businesses; from published novelists and poets to professional actors and screenwriters; from librarians to specialists at museums and historic sites; among many other jobs and paths. And in talking with the current students, I see just as many possible paths and next steps for them.
I’m not trying to deny the genuine and very troubling realities of the current job market, in any and ever discipline and profession, and all the accompanying issues (student loan debt, for example) that come with it. Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t certain challenges that an English degree presents that would be less present with one of FSU’s more overtly pre-professional majors (Nursing, for example). But on the other hand, I do have four Capstone sections’ worth of rebuttals to any doom-and-gloom perspectives on the futures available to English majors, and I look forward to adding the students from this fifth section to that growing body of evidence. And yeah, I can’t lie—when I see how well-prepared these majors are for their next steps (professional, educational, all of ‘em), I also kind of want to parphrase Jack Nicholson’s almost-concluding line from As Good As It Gets: “it makes me feel good, about me.”
Next recap tomorrow,

PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

December 16, 2014: Semester Recaps: Approaches to English Studies

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On two exemplary moments of applied literary theory.
I’ve written before in this space about the irony of a scholar who has never been closely connected to theory (to put it politely) becoming a frequent teacher of our department’s two most theoretical courses: the undergraduate Approaches to English Studies and graduate Introduction to Literary Theory. I’ll be teaching the latter course for the fourth time this spring, and this fall taught my second and third sections of Approaches. I can’t lie—I was still most excited for the weeks when we were working more directly with primary literary texts (and various contextual and theoretical materials related to them), from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a week with multiple poets and poems. But as I’ve gotten more practice with these theoretical courses, I’ve gotten better at finding ways to help students (and me!) connect our theory readings to literary and cultural questions and conversations, and here want to highlight two wonderful such connections from this semester’s sections.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the day in which we discussed four Feminist essays (by Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, and the Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective) inspired a particularly rich discussion. The conversation ranged across multiple subjects, from the more familiar (Disney Princesses) to the more unexpected (She’s the Man). But I was particularly impressed when we turned to Facebook, and the many ways in which users on the site create, reinforce, challenge, and otherwise engage with aspects of gender, sexuality, and identity (both in their individual profiles and in how they relate to one another). I try throughout the semester to argue that our theoretical readings, even the densest and most seemingly philosophical (yes, even our essay by Derrida, much as I sorta hate to admit it), have things to contribute to our contemporary conversations and perspectives; in these few minutes of discussion, the students made the case for such connections far better than I ever could.
The place where the Approaches students most consistently demonstrate those connections, however, is in their individual final projects: I ask them to create a Casebook focused on a primary text of their own choosing (in any genre/medium), and to consider how different contexts and theories can help us approach and analyze that work. All 40+ Casebooks were interesting and inspiring, both in their specific readings and in the way they reflected the students’ evolving perspectives to which our readings and conversations had meaningfully contributed. But I have to admit that I was ecstatic (my son Aidan’s favorite adjective, and a very apt one here) when one of the students used The Wire as his Casebook text, and applied Ethnic Studies, New Historicism, Gender Studies, and Marxist theoretical approaches to an extended and entirely successful reading of multiple moments, characters, and themes from that seminal show. Omar Little analyzed through a combination of bell hooks’ ideas of postmodern blackness, gender theory, and Georg Lukacs’ Marxist concepts of heroic identity and potentiality? Okay, literary theory, I’m sold.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Monday, December 15, 2014

December 15, 2014: Semester Recaps: The American Novel

[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On endings, happy, sad, and perfect.
For purposes of syllabus structure and helping us move through 150 years of texts and their contexts, I break my American Novel to 1950 class up into three sections: Romanticism, Realism, and Modernism. Such categorizations are, as always, at least somewhat forced and inexact: for example, my first Romantic text, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), pretty clearly fits (Hawthorne identifies his novel as a Romance in his famous Preface); while my second, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), is a lot trickier to connect to that genre or movement and certainly relates just as closely to realism and its various sub-genres such as local color/regionalism. But the categories help the students think about that very question (how we categorize and define novels and their genres)—and, as I was reminded this semester, they also can help me come to new ideas about these works I’ve read and taught many times.
The new idea that struck me most forcefully this time around has to do with the novels’ endings (long a subject of literary critical investigation). Despite their many differences, both of those Romantic novels come to strikingly and (to this reader, and to many students as well) frustratingly happy endings, too-neat resolutions that tie up virtually all their historical, social, and thematic conflicts and send their protagonists off into a feel-good future. Similarly, despite their own significant differences, both of our Realistic novels (Chopin’s The Awakening and Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky) end on far more negative and even tragic notes, their protagonists feeling hopelessly pessimistic about not only their futures but their very identities (the last book of Cahan’s novel is titled “Episodes of a Lonely Life,” which could describe Chopin’s culmating section as well). And it seems to me that these respective kinds of endings are at least somewhat necessary for these two genres, and thus that one way to make sense of Twain’s notoriously controversial ending is to see it as a retreat into the more Romantic aspects of a novel that has featured plenty of realistic elements as well.
Perhaps it’s because I had been thinking about these questions of endings throughout our first two units; but in any case, when we got to our fifth novel and first Modernist text, Cather’s My Antonia (1918), I was even more affected by its ending, which I have long found to be among the most beautiful in American literature. On the one hand, the ending’s lyrical description of her novel’s Nebraska setting echoes multiple moments from throughout the text, especially those located at or near the end of its structuring Books (including Book II’s famous plough and sun description). But on another, the ending’s true power depends on where we, along with our narrator Jim Burden and his lifelong friend Antonia Shimerda, have arrived; it’s a moment defined equally for me, as is Jim’s appreciation of the Nebraska landscape, by a Romantic temperament and a Realistic subject, by the intimate details of Antonia’s life as an immigrant on the frontier and by the sweeping lens of Jim’s love and admiration for her. Perhaps this ending’s perfection, that is, is due to its combination of categories—a combination that, like Antonia’s story, feels particularly American.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 13-14, 2014: Andrea Grenadier’s Guest Post on Charles Ives

[Andrea Grenadier is a writer/editor based in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a 1978 graduate of Mary Washington College with a B.A. in American Studies, focusing on music, fine arts, and history. She completed her first (self-published) novel, The Journal of My Plague Year in 2005, and has published several poems in Pennsylvania English. She is currently preparing her first chapbook, What Brings Me Here, and can be reached at]

O, Pioneer!: Charles Ives and the “Concord” Sonata

In a 20th century full of cranky, iconoclastic American composers, the musical pioneer Charles Ives would still hover among the top five, perhaps with a bullet. He was also, most certainly, the only American composer who had a highly successful career in insurance.

There is music, and there is music so far ahead of its time, it will always sound modern. You could pick up Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” — composed from 1909 to 1915 and published in 1920 — drop it into the vast contemporary music ocean, and be unable to guess its age. It’s that strange and that rhythmically complex, with abrupt polyrhythms and general mayhem invoking marching bands, parlor tunes, hymns, and chasing through it all in a variety of guises, the four-note motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which forever obsessed Ives. It’s also wildly entertaining, surprising at every kaleidoscopic turn, wistful, affectionately dreamy of times past, and powerfully evocative. To Ives, it also felt unfinished, perhaps on purpose.  

Why this particular piece has always stayed with me is a mystery, 40 years after hearing it for the first time in a Fine Arts seminar at Mary Washington College. In 1974, the year of Ives’ centenary, a full-scale re-examination of his life and works was well underway. Despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947 for his Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, Ives’ music was largely ignored in his lifetime. I must have heard John Kirkpatrick’s 1968 recording for Columbia in the music library. (Kirkpatrick premiered the work in 1939.) The view from the music library was particularly poetic; you either looked onto some majestic trees toward the amphitheater, or if you were sitting on the other side of the building, you became part of an elegant colonnade in the shape of a horseshoe. If you walked through those columns past all the practice rooms on any given afternoon, you’d hear a perfect mash-up of the history of music. That’s what hearing Ives was like.

Ives, who lived from 1874 to 1954, spanned 80 remarkable years in music. Ives’ father George was a bandleader, and it is said (although this may have been just a charming story to entertain students), that the experience of hearing the marching band — as well as another band at opposite sides of the town square playing simultaneously — must have entered Charles Ives’ work almost the same way: opposing rhythms and harmonics heard as through a window as the sounds rise and fade, the bands having moved on. In his teaching, George Ives’ broad approach to music theory must have encouraged his son to experiment with the polytonal/bitonal harmonies and complex rhythms found in his music, as well as a cultivated-meets-vernacular approach. In the 1890s, he studied composition at Yale University, under Horatio Parker.

The “Concord” Sonata is a devil of a piece to play. Some material dates back as far as 1904, but Ives did not begin substantial work on it until around 1911, and largely completed the work by 1915. When it was first printed in 1920, Ives wrote an elaborate, 30,000-word “program note” in which he explained that the four-movement sonata was an “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago.” It introduces us, in order, to Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. E.B. White had a fine phrase that characterizes the sheer restlessness of the piece: “chronic perplexity.” This unsettled and searching quality defies rootedness, except in its contemplative-rich Alcott movement, with a haunting flute solo.

When the polymathic pianist-librettist-essayist Jeremy Denk recorded Ives’ Sonatas No. 1 and 2 in 2012, I was once again drawn to Ives. In the February 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Denk describes in “Flight of the Concord” the joys, the hell, and the unending neuroses of recording the sonata, while also discovering that the editing could be the most nerve-wracking part of the process. It’s a fine read, especially if you like the idea of knowing how musical sausage is made, from 
selecting the piano and recording to the editing suite.

To know the first movement “Emerson,” is to dwell in the philosopher’s Transcendentalism. It begins with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 four-note motif, and expresses Emerson’s core beliefs with impressionistic waves of sound. I have always found much restless conflict in this movement, perhaps much like Emerson’s philosophy itself. It dances from sweetness to passionate outbursts, like a philosophical Q&A session with the universe. Emerson’s belief that “all is connected, and God is in all things,” reflected his idea that all of nature’s elements in the universe were   representations of the soul itself.  These may not sound like radical ideas now, but when expressed in 1841, they made 
Emerson an iconoclast — something that Ives must have viscerally understood.

The next movement, “Hawthorne,” is best described as rollicking and playful, with fantastical outbursts. Hawthorne-as-moralist is not to be found in this often-witty movement; in “Essays Before a Sonata,” Ives writes: “The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical —so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they—but a greater artist.”  Listen closely, and in the middle of the movement, you’ll find some syncopated ragtime, some well-placed musical pauses, and some crashing dissonant chords. You’ll also hear one of Ives’ more eccentric technical directions, when a 14-3/4-inch piece of wood (it’s in the score) is evenly deployed over the black keys — decades before John Cage and his “prepared piano” experiments.

“The Alcotts” movement begins with a hymn-like treatment of Beethoven’s four-note motif. You can almost hear them in the parlor as if in conversation: a gentle statement, the crashing motif in response. There’s gentle interplay of themes into the fabric with wholehearted simplicity, a folk tune and a pentatonic melody. Stephen Foster is also here, sentimental and romantic.

The final movement is Thoreau’s, which Henry Cowell called “a kind of mystic reflection on man’s identification of himself with nature.” “Thoreau” is an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden Pond, and memorializes not only Thoreau, but Ives’ father as well, who died before Ives entered Yale in 1894. About Thoreau, Ives wrote: “He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude…” Tellingly, Ives also compares Thoreau to the musical impressionist Claude Debussy. Considering the profound influence the father had upon the son’s own musical experimentation, the movement is restless and meditative, the offstage flute toward the final third weaves the four-note motif, calling in a pentatonic melody against gentle chords. It is a tribute to nature, to beauty, and to loss.

In searching for a suitable recording, you won’t be at a loss — there are 23 versions listed here at A new and notable biography of Ives, Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel by Stephen Budiansky is a recent addition to the growing Ives bookshelf.  On my own shelf is one of the earliest and finest academic assessments, by composer Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music, published in 1955.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]