My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Sunday, December 31, 2023

December 30-31, 2023: December 2023 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

December 4: Board Game Studying: Scrabble: A series for Scrabble’s 75th anniversary kicks off with three of the moments and stages through which a homemade game becomes an icon.

December 5: Board Game Studying: Monopoly: The series continues with point, counterpoint, and counter-counterpoint when it comes to a complex game of capitalism.

December 6: Board Game Studying: Careers: What my sons and I learned about American society by playing two earlier iterations of Careers, as the series plays on.

December 7: Board Game Studying: War Games: Three board games through which a young AmericanStudier learned a lot about war histories and stories.

December 8: Board Game Studying: Collaborative Games: The series concludes with the most common form of collaborative board game, and a unique and beautiful alternative.

December 9-10: Crowd-sourced Board Game Studying: My first crowd-sourced post in a while, and a really full and fun one!

December 11: Boston Tea Party Studying: Causes: A series for the Tea Party’s 250th anniversary kicks off with a few key 1773 moments along the way to that December protest.

December 12: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Adams Boys: The series continues with how the two famous cousins complemented each other at the Tea Party.

December 13: Boston Tea Party Studying: Playing Indian: How the Tea Party connects to a fraught and frustrating American tradition, and one other layer.

December 14: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Peggy Stewart: What differentiates the Annapolis Tea Party, and what it adds to the Boston story.

December 15: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Shoemaker: The series concludes with why we should all read a great narrative history about one of the Tea Party participants.

December 16-17: A Tribute to BostonStudiers: I couldn’t share a series on the Boston Tea Party without paying tribute to some of the many folks from which I’ve learned a great deal about such histories!

December 18: Fall Semester Finds: Nguyen’s Novel in Capstone: For this semester’s reflections series I wanted to highlight new texts & ideas I encountered, starting with Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water in my Capstone course.

December 19: Fall Semester Finds: Espada’s Poem in Ethnic American Lit: The series continues with a bracing and vital poem I rediscovered in my Ethnic American Lit course.

December 20: Fall Semester Finds: New Music in Writing I: A couple examples of how much I always learn from a First-Year Writing assignment, as the series reflects on.

December 21: Fall Semester Finds: A New Take on Hughes in Am Lit II: How a Blues musician student opened up new layers to a very familiar poem in my online American Lit survey.

December 22: Fall Semester Finds: Douglas Stuart from an MA Thesis: The series concludes with a new author to whom I’ve been introduced by a great current Graduate student.

December 23: Spring Semester Previews: The first of two weekend follow-ups to the series, on three courses I’m looking forward to in Spring 2024.

December 23-24: Hamza Suleiman’s Guest Post on Mohja Kahf: And I’m so excited to share another great Guest Post from one of Robin Field’s King’s College students!

December 25: Christmas Stories: “A Visit from St. Nicholas”: For a particularly sentimental holiday series this year, I wanted to highlight Christmas stories I shared with my sons over the years, starting with the classic poem celebrating its 200th anniversary this December.

December 26: Christmas Stories: The Father Christmas Letters: The series continues with three distinct ways to contextualize Tolkien’s classic Christmas texts.

December 27: Christmas Stories: The Night Before the Night Before Christmas: A delightful new Christmas classic from the legendary Richard Scarry, as the series reads on.

December 28: Christmas Stories: Ezra Jack Keats and the Snowy Day: On the birthday of my favorite early childhood educator, a tribute to one of the most influential children’s books of all time.

December 29: Christmas Stories: A Christmas Carol: The series, month, and year conclude with two vital lessons from one of the most enduring Christmas stories.

New Year’s series starts Monday,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, December 29, 2023

December 29, 2023: Christmas Stories: A Christmas Carol

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

On two vital lessons from one of the most enduring Christmas stories.

Four years ago this week, I started one of my favorite Saturday Evening Post Considering History columns, on Dorothy Day and the true spirit of Christmas, by quoting my favorite moment from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). I’d ask you to check out that column and opening if you would, and then come on back here for further thoughts on that spot and Dickens’ iconic story.

Welcome back! As I wrote there, I think Dickens’ central anti-poverty themes have been under-remembered despite his story’s enduring popularity. It’s not only that an awareness of the horrifying ubiquity of extreme poverty is one of the main lessons that Ebenezer Scrooge must learn, nor even (as that particular quote exemplifies) that he likewise is forced to realize that he is in no way better than (and indeed in many ways worse than) his most impoverished fellow countrymen and humans. Along with those key takeaways, Dickens also makes a compelling and crucial case that if we don’t address those realities and make things significantly better for those in the worst situations, it spells doom for all of us—that, to quote another of my favorite artists, “in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” As I always note when I use that Bruce quote, it’s an ideal, and too often perhaps an unattainable one—but I don’t know that any ideal is more worth fighting for, and that’s certainly a central lesson of A Christmas Carol as well.

But what makes Dickens’ story so powerful isn’t just that Scrooge learns such things, but that he changes, becoming (in another top-tier quote) “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” And to me, one of the wisest elements of A Christmas Carol is its recognition that such change requires both empathetic epiphanies about other people (like Scrooge’s care for Tiny Tim and his future) and concern for one’s own welfare (Scrooge’s fears of dying alone and unredeemed in every sense). The latter might seem far more selfish than the former, and in a literal sense it is; but the truth is that asking people to entirely abandon their self interests, to think only and entirely of others, is unrealistic, if not indeed impossible. The true spirit of Christmas is to receive as well as to give, to feel loved and cared-for ourselves as well as to share those feelings with others, and it is when Scrooge realizes that his life, past, present, and especially future, is devoid of all those layers of goodness that he becomes determined to “keep Christmas well,” all year round. I don’t know any more important story and message to share than that.

December Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

Thursday, December 28, 2023

December 28, 2023: Christmas Stories: Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

[NB. This post isn’t about a Christmas story, and it’s a repost of one from many years ago. But today is my Mom’s birthday, and this author and book were among the many to which she introduced me and which I then passed on to the boys, so they feels very appropriate to include here!]

On one of the most iconic and influential children’s books and authors.

Given how significant a percentage of my daily life—and an even higher percentage of my reading time, over the last six plus years at least—is dedicated to children’s books, it feels overdue for me to dedicate a week of posts here to them as well. My Mom Ilene Railton did so in my first Guest Post, on Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon (1947); I also spent a paragraph analyzing the family dynamics of The Cat in the Hat here, and discussed one of my all-time favorite chapter books, David and the Phoenix, as part of the Valentine’s post here. Each of those books and their authors would certainly qualify for a tribute post; my Mom’s post in fact focused on Brown’s hugely innovative theories and styles, and the same could of course be said of Dr. Seuss’s literary creations, as well as those of numerous other children’s authors (my short list would include Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, and Marjorie Weinmann Sharmat’s Nate the Great series). But I’m not sure any American children’s author is more tribute-worthy than Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983).

Keats’ early life and career read like a newsreel of American culture and identity in the early 20th century: born in Brooklyn to Polish American immigrants, he won a nationwide artistic contest in high school with a Depression-era painting of the unemployed; after graduation he went to work for Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a mural painter, then turned to providing illustrations for the exploding new comic books industry; he served in the army during World War II, designing camouflage; spent a year in Paris, where he produced many paintings that were later exhibited there and in the States; and then returned to America to illustrate many of the era’s most prominent magazines, including Reader’s Digest and Playboy. His first jobs as a children’s book illustrator were just another facet of this expanding career—in fact he was offered the first such job after a publisher saw another illustration of his—and as of the end of the 1950s, despite the clear facts of his artistic talent and resume, there was no apparent evidence that Keats had anything especially unique to offer the world of American children’s literature.

Keats’ first authored as well as illustrated children’s book, My Dog is Lost (1960), instantly proved that perception false. The book featured as its protagonist a young Puerto Rican boy, a recent immigrant who speaks only Spanish, as he travels New York City in search of his lost dog; during his journey he meets numerous other city dwellers and communities. My Dog’s introduction of a multicultural and multiethnic urban world, without sacrificing a bit of story or beauty or audience appeal, set the stage for a long career in which Keats continued to strike that balance, most especially in the many books featuring the African American protagonist Peter; introduced in 1963’s Caldecott Winning The Snowy Day, Peter would reappear in many more books and grow from a young boy to a teenager on New York’s streets. His world and experiences and stories were recognizably specific to his race and urban setting and time period, but were also always universal and human and full of the wonder and mystery and humor that defines the best children’s books. More than, I believe, any other single American author (in any genre), Keats helped bring the nation’s burgeoning post-1960 multicultural identity into the mainstream, not with polemics or arguments, but with beautiful illustrations and engaging stories of city life and childhood.

Last Christmas story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

December 27, 2023: Christmas Stories: The Night Before the Night Before Christmas

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

Look, I’m not going to pretend that I can devote three thoughtful paragraphs to Richard Scarry’s silly but fun The Night Before the Night Before Christmas (1984). Mostly I wanted to include it in this week’s series for two relatively straightforward but good reasons: it was maybe my sons’ favorite Christmas story for many of their young childhood years; and I don’t think nearly enough people know that Richard Scarry created a number of Christmas books set in his wonderful Busytown world. Like every Busytown character, Mr. Frumble, the pig at the heart of Night Before, is a flawed and flustered figure who means well, messes up most of the time, but ultimately gets the job done (and thus saves Christmas in the process, natch). And like every Richard Scarry classic, Night Before features incredibly full and multi-layered illustrations that reward the kinds of constant revisiting that come with a book that we read again and again, over multiple nights in every holiday season. If you’ve got young kids, of your own or in your life, you won’t find a better holiday read

Next Christmas story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

December 26, 2023: Christmas Stories: The Father Christmas Letters

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

On three distinct ways to contextualize J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Christmas texts.

1)      Father Christmas: I’m sure Tolkien wasn’t the first to use that particular phrase for St. Nicholas/Santa Claus, but as with everything Tolkien wrote it was still a purposeful and powerful choice. These letters were texts that Tolkien created for his own children, sending them a letter (with his own accompanying illustrations) each holiday season for more than two decades (and were only published decades later, after his death and edited by his daughter-in-law and former secretary Baillie). As such, they were not only from the children’s father, but also represented a powerful reminder that Santa himself is in many ways (or at least had evolved into by the 20th century) a parental alter ego, an expression of what parents and parental figures want to offer and be for their children at their best.

2)      Fantasy: Tolkien created the Father Christmas letters every year from 1920 to 1943, and over that same period he wrote another, slightly more famous text: The Hobbit, which he began in the early 1930s and published in 1937; at that time he also immediately began work on The Lord of the Rings, although it wouldn’t be published until the 1950s. Since he envisioned that fantasy novel as a children’s book first and foremost, it’s difficult not to see a connection between these two creative works; moreover, the Father Christmas letters included a number of elements that Tolkien brought into his fantastic world of Middle-earth, from elves, goblins, and giant bears to characters who lived in holes in the ground (the network of underground rooms at the North Pole was my sons’ favorite Father Christmas letters illustration). Seeing these foundations for one of the most foundational fantasies is an added bonus for any reader of the Father Christmas letters.

3)      Reality: Tolkien strongly resisted any analyses of The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for World War II, and I always try to honor that authorial perspective even if I don’t entirely agree. But of course the Father Christmas letters are set on Earth in the 20th century, fantastic as many elements of them are, and so in this text Tolkien did not resist making such world-historical connections: mentioning the war overtly in his 1939 letter, and then adding battles against threatening goblins into the subsequent letters. When I teach my Intro to Sci Fi and Fantasy course (as I will get to again this Spring), we talk a lot about the relationship of the fantastic to the realistic in each and every text and genre we engage, and it’s fascinating to see how Tolkien navigated that balance in these two fantastic texts and worlds he was creating side-by-side in the late 1930s. One of many reasons to share the Father Christmas letters with our own families every holiday season!

Next Christmas story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

Monday, December 25, 2023

December 25, 2023: Christmas Stories: “A Visit from St. Nicholas”

[This December we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (well, maybe we do—see Monday’s post!). That was one of many Christmas stories I read to my sons when they were young, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy it and four other such holiday classics!]

On an important AmericanStudies takeaway from the controversy over the classic Christmas poem’s authorship.

To be clear, and so you don’t think I was the most obnoxiously academic Dad ever, I didn’t include thorny authorship debates when I shared “A Visit from St. Nicholas” with the boys. We focused on all the elements that have made this poem such an enduring hit since its 1823 publication: the legendary opening line that has eventually given the poem its new title “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”; the rhyming couplets and rhythm that move reader and audience alike through the rest of the poem’s structure after that opening; the naming of the reindeer which has become such an iconic part of the Santa Claus mythos (as have other aspects of this poem to be sure). And at the risk of getting on the naughty list, I’ll note that the boys’ favorite moment was an invented one I stole from my own Dad’s reading of the poem to me: revising the second line in the couplet “And laying a finger aside of his nose,/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;” to “He pulled out a booger as long as a hose.” What can I say, boys will be boys, at all ages.

So like generations have before us, my sons and I greatly enjoyed our own annual rendition of “Visit.” But from its very first appearance, as the anonymously authored poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” published in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23rd, 1823, the question of who created those iconic lines has been an uncertain one. It remained publicly anonymous for 14 years, until the professor and author Clement Clarke Moore claimed authorship in 1837; Moore subsequently included “Visit” in an 1844 collection of his poetry. But over the centuries an alternate theory has emerged: that fellow New Yorker (and distant relative of Moore’s by marriage) Henry Livingston Jr. was the author of the original poem. As you might expect for a work as enduring and popular as this poem, a small cottage industry has developed among scholars making the case for one or the other of these men as the first author, and I’m not going to pretend to be able to weigh in with the knowledge nor the authority that those folks have brought to their works.

Whoever penned that December 1823 poem, however, it’s important to note that it appeared anonymously in a daily newspaper, and not even one in a major city and literary hub like Boston (or, increasingly in that era, New York, where both Moore and Livingston spent their lives, literary and otherwise). Poetry in early 19th century America was a profoundly public and communal enterprise, not quite akin to the oral traditions of Homer and his ilk but certainly not yet consistently the domain of iconic individual authors that it would become and largely remains (although the first American professional poets were just beginning to ply their trade in this period). That collective tradition could be found in most every American community, and was most commonly shared in mass media like newspapers. It was thus far from abnormal for a poem to appear without a named author, although of course it’s particularly apt that that was the case for this specific poem, which so fully established some of the collective images and narratives around Santa Claus and Christmas that have endured for the two centuries since. To all a good night indeed.

Next Christmas story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Christmas or holiday readings you’d share?

Saturday, December 23, 2023

December 23-24, 2023: Hamza Suleiman’s Guest Post on Mohja Kahf

[Hamza Suleiman is a Physican Assistant major at King’s College, class of 2027, who aspires to be a PA radiologist. Born and raised in America, he currently lives in Clifton, New Jersey. His parents are immigrants from Palestine. He writes: “My family and I are proud Arabs, and we all follow the Islamic faith. In ‘The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaquah, Iowa,’ Mohja Kahf addresses stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim communities, with themes aimed to educate both American and minority groups. Kahf’s story and messages resonated with me, as they are important and clear up misconceptions about my community.”]

Learning Islam in a Different Light and Debunking Stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in “The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaqua” by Mohja Kahf

“I can’t believe she is still wearing that wrap around her head; her life is so sad” is a common phrase people would say when they see a Muslim woman wear the hijab. This is one of the many racist beliefs that Americans have about Muslims. The hijab is a religious obligation that Muslim women wear as commanded by their God, Allah. However, people fail to take the time to be educated about the Islamic practice and Arab culture, stirring hatred and biases towards Arabs and Muslims. In “The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaqua”, Mohja Kahf debunks myths about Arabs and Muslims through the parallel of two distinct Muslim married couples, along with portraying themes relevant to all her readers.

Mzayyan and Rana serve as foil characters in “The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaqua” to contrast the reality of Muslim women versus how they are perceived by in the America. Mzayyan is married to an abusive husband and originally appeared off as scared to get her husband in trouble. When Mzayyan is expressing her concerns to Rana over the phone, Rana replies, “‘Mzayyan!...His beating you is the digrace, Mzayyan. It’s un-Islamic. This is what you tell them at the mosque: it’s contrary to the teaching of the Prophet’” (Kahf 145). Rana explains to Mzayyan that Muslim men mistreating their wives is against the Islamic religion. In Islam, there are obligations that a Muslim man must follow regarding his wife. A widespread misconception is that is normal for Muslim men to oppress their wives because that is what their religion entails. However, in Islam Muslim men are prohibited to hit or abuse their wives. In fact, Muslim men are supposed to be the protectors of their wives, providing them safety and taking care of them financially. Additionally, Muslim women have rights in Islam, such as the right to work. While Mzayyan did not have a job in the beginning of the story and seemed to be deprived of freedoms, Rana was working as a diligent physicist, referred to as Dr. Rashid, at a nuclear power plant. Dr. Rashid is a prime example of how Muslim women are allowed to enroll in school and pursue higher education to get their dream career. Likewise, despite Mzayyan appearing as helpless, she was secretly rescuing herself from the abusive marriage and created an entrepreneurship for herself. When Dr. Rashid was trying to get Mzayyan’s husband convicted, Mzayyan gave Rana a stack of papers to give to the INS and informed her, “‘Here are tax returns for the last two years. He’s a great con artist...Do you think...I could have the title to his property transferred to my name’” (Kahf 147). Through Mzayyan’s actions, it is evident that she was never defenseless, but has been plotting her freedom by herself for a while. She was conducting a plan for her husband’s conviction and aspired to have her own business. In the end, her goal was reached, and she owns her husband’s store selling spiced chicken. Even before, the strength for Mzayyan was always there when she defended herself during one her husband’s attacks. This contradicts the normal beliefs of the West that when a Muslim woman is abused from her husband, that she accepts it and is submissive. No, this is false because Muslim women are intelligent and strong and are supposed to go against their abusive partners in Islam. All in all, through the comparison between Rana and Mzayyan, the readers unlearn about the misconceptions of Islam and are enlightened with the truth about Muslim women.

Similarly, Mzayyan’s husband and Rana’s husband Emad, act as foil characters to display the truth about Muslim men compared to the Western’s beliefs about them. Emad and Rana are both Muslims and are of Syrian-descent. Emad earned his Ph.D and is a cardiologist. He is very well respected by his family and has had a successful career and life. As a matter of fact, Emad and Rana have a very healthy relationship with each other. When Emad arrives home one day, he excitedtly tells Mzayyan, “‘Picked up your apricots at the farmers’ market...Organically ripened to perfection’” (Kahf 141). Emad’s benevolent gestures to his wife represents the truth of how Muslim men treat their wives in Islam. Emad is never seen harming his wife or even disrespecting her. He cares for her by doing these acts of kindness to show his love, respect, and pride over his spouse. Vice versa, Rana loves her husband and confides in him over matters that are serious to her.  More so, he is outraged by the way Mzayyan is being treated by her husband. When Rana tells Emad about the situation between Mzayyan and her husband, Emad replies, “‘So why didn’t she call the cops?’” (Kahf 140). Emad is clearly against Mzayyan’s husband’s actions and wants Mzayyan to get her justice. In addition, him wanting Mzayyan to stand up for herself proves that Muslim men are not misogynistic. In addition, more bigotry towards Muslim men arises in the story after the 9/11 incident. For instance, Emad’s brother was questioned from the FBI about why he named his son Osama. The FBI interrogating anyone who they see as Muslim or Arab looking is racist and generalizes a large group of people based off on a few actions of others. Kahf incorporated this scene in her story to resemble the real-life discrimination towards Muslims. NBC news recently published an article “For Muslim Americans, a spike in hate incidents feels reminiscent of post 9/11 Islamophobia” where they described a hate crime done by an Illinois man “after he demanded that two Muslim men get out of the country and threatened to shoot them” (2023). This hateful incident is a reminder that Islamophobia is still prevalent today in the United States. This parallels with Emad’s brother and his son as they are real life examples of how Arab men are targeted, due to similar physical characteristics with the hijackers of 9/11. Overall, Kahf created Emad’s character to demonstrate the correct Muslim men representation in contrast with Mzayyan’s husband, along with refuting prejudice ideas about Muslim men post 9/11.

In “The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaqua Iowa”, Mohja Kahf offers themes that are relevant to the reader, despite ethnicity. These themes include preserving one’s culture, seeking help, and eliminating biases towards minority groups. In the story, Rana and Emad were friends with an Arab couple named Joseph and Jocelyn. Joseph and Jocelyn are obvious non-Arab names. It is explained in the story how “so many generations removed from the slightest hint of Arabic accent or whiff of cardamom, that no one would notice if you dropped the ‘Arab’” (Kahf 143). Kahf offers a specific theme aimed towards ethnic groups of the importance of holding onto one’s roots, despite the racism. Joseph and Jocelyn were normal Arabs that lived a simple life. Unfortunately, their parents gave them different names and they removed their cultural aspects to appear American. People carrying this mindset is detrimental because everyone should feel proud of their ethnicity and visibly show off their heritage, culture, and religion. If this keeps up for multiple generations, then there would be no need for a family to hide their background because all cultural traditions would be long lost. Moreover, the more people accept who they are and portray themselves as their native background, the more it will help normalize all minority groups. If Joseph and Jocelyn showed themselves in their town as Arab, then it would be another positive representation causing more people to be less biased. Another prominent theme for all people is to seek help whenever trapped in a toxic relationship. Kahf utilizes Mzayyan to give all other abused women strength and courage to rise over their partner and leave to make a better life for themselves. There are multiple cases in America, where the couples are not arab, where a partner is being mistreated and assaulted. Therefore, the best solution is for the partner to recognize their worth and leave the relationship. Lastly, Kahf used a variety of Arab countries to emphasize the multitude of different cultures in the Arab regions. For example, Rana and Emad are Syrian, Mzayyan and her husband are Omani, and Joseph and Jocelyn are Lebanese. Many people assume that Arabs all come from one country, but there are actually twenty-two Arab countries that comprise of four hundred and fifty-six million people. Additionally, not every Arab person is Muslim as they are a large Christian and Jewish population. Therefore, it is absurd to put Arabs under one category because there are numerous distinct cultures and practices within the Arab nations. Tying it all together, Moja Kahf teaches to her audience multiple messages that are relevant to all people despite their background.

By contrasting the two Muslim couples in “The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaqua”, Mohja Kahf was able to shed light about the truth and beauty of Islam, while eliminating stereotypes and problematic assumptions that people make about them. Emad represented how Muslim men are to their wives, while Mzayyan’s husband is what Americans think how Muslim men are to their wives. Also, Dr. Rashid and Mzayyan are both strong independent women who have their careers and freedoms, just like any other individual. Most importantly, Kahf has three Arab couples from different countries to highlight the large nation of Arabs and how they all come from different backgrounds. Thus, it is crucial to not generalize Arabs because they all come from different cultures. It is important to note as well that not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. This can be an issue when the American media is discussing a crime that an Arab man did, and everyone assumes that he is Muslim, when he is not, and is fed into their Islamophobia. On a large scale, Kahf addresses serious issues that apply to everyone, such as seeking help from Domestic Violence and maintaining one’s culture, no matter the ethnicity. Kahf leaves her readers with a call to action to end racism towards, not just Muslims and Arabs, but for all minority and ethnic groups around the world.


Venkatraman, Sakshi, and Mirna Alsharif. “For Muslim Americans, a Spike in Hate Incidents Feels Reminiscent of Post 9/11 Islamophobia.” NBC News, 31 Oct. 2023,

[Holiday series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

December 23, 2023: Spring Semester Previews

[For my annual Fall semester reflections series, I wanted to share some of the new texts and ideas I encountered this semester. Leading up to this preview post featuring a few of the things I’m excited for in Spring 2024!]

On three Spring 2024 courses for which I’m particularly excited (even if I’m really not ready yet for it to be 2024).

1)      Intro to Sci Fi and Fantasy: Usually I get to teach this course every few years, but as that Spring 2023 reflections poet indicates, this will be the second straight Spring semester in which I’ve taught Sci Fi/Fantasy. As a result I wanted to make sure to keep it fresh by including at least one book I haven’t taught before (alongside the one I added in Spring 2023 and wrote about in that post, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch), and so chose a new work for the contemporary sci fi novel: Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014). Chambers’ novel should make for a really interesting pairing with our foundational sci fi text, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, but is also just a quirky and funny and thoughtful example of where sci fi storytelling has gone in recent years. Can’t wait to share it with students!

2)      The Short Story Online: As that post illustrates, I first taught an accelerated online course in the Spring 2019 semester, and this Spring will do so for the fifth time with another section of the same class, The Short Story. It would be very easy to simply teach the same syllabus and readings I’ve done in those prior sections, and I’m not going to pretend I’m entirely reinventing the wheel (and it does still roll quite smoothly, I’d say). But this time around I did want to find ways to bring in even more stories that feel relevant to our current moment, and so I’ll be slotting in one of my couple favorite American short stories, Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1912). I don’t know of any literary work that better captures the human stakes of things like elections and laws than does Far’s, and as ever I know it will draw out thoughtful and impressive student responses.

3)      Grad Historical Fiction: As you can see from that Fall 2023 preview post, I originally thought I’d be teaching my Graduate American Historical Fiction course this semester; it got pushed back to Spring 2024, and so everything I said in that post still applies to this preview! But to reiterate what I said in number 2, I’m now particularly excited to be reading and discussing these works in an election year, where the stakes of these histories and issues and American ideas have never been clearer. That’s especially true for my favorite American novel, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901); but every book we read in this class has a great deal to tell us about not only historical fiction and history, but about collective memory and contemporary debates and more. Can’t wait to see how our awesome grad students respond to them!

Holiday series starts Monday,


PS. What are you looking forward to in 2024?

Friday, December 22, 2023

December 22, 2023: Fall Semester Finds: Douglas Stuart from an MA Thesis

[For my annual Fall semester reflections series, I wanted to share some of the new texts and ideas I encountered this semester. I’d love to hear things you discovered or rediscovered this Fall in comments!]

Two years ago, at the start of the Fall 2021 semester, I took over as the Chair of our Graduate English Program at Fitchburg State, in the midst of the crises of enrollment and sustainability about which I wrote in this post. We’ve worked throughout those two years to address those issues and grow our program and continue to do so this Fall, and I’d certainly love for you all to help spread the word to anyone who might be interested in completing an online English Studies MA (and/or our newly created Creative Writing Certificate). I have lots of selfless reasons for wanting the program to survive and grow, but also selfishly I learn so much from our grad students, and perhaps especially from the many with whom I’ve been able to work on their MA Thesis. I’m advising one such Thesis this semester, from the phenomenal student and teacher Heather Ferguson who’s working on representations of LGBTQ+ identities in the works of William Shakespeare and Douglas Stuart. I had never heard of Stuart before Heather began this work, and have greatly appreciated the chance to connect with his two novels, which do indeed portray LGBTQ+ identities in thoughtful ways but are also and especially just great 21st century literary works. Want to explore such works in your own graduate studies, or know someone who does? Maybe FSU’s Graduate English program is the spot for you!

Spring preview post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other Fall finds you’d share?

Thursday, December 21, 2023

December 21, 2023: Fall Semester Finds: A New Take on Hughes in Am Lit II

[For my annual Fall semester reflections series, I wanted to share some of the new texts and ideas I encountered this semester. I’d love to hear things you discovered or rediscovered this Fall in comments!]

Unlike with Tuesday’s subject Martín Espada, I unfortunately don’t think I’m likely to discover poems by Langston Hughes that I’ve never read—I teach Hughes’ mammoth and magisterial Collected Poems in my Major American Authors of the 20th Century course, and so have read every published poem of his at least once. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t rediscover even his most familiar works in compelling new ways, and as I’ve been saying throughout the week’s series a main way that I can and will do so with any texts is through student perspectives and class discussions. I had a wonderful example of that possibility this semester in my online section of American Literature II, where students read and responded to three Hughes poems including “The Weary Blues.” I’ve taught “Weary” literally dozens of distinct times, but in one of those responses this semester a student who is himself a Blues musician analyzed the poem through that perspective, really getting inside layers of Blues composition and songwriting to consider how the poem both parallels and comments on the genre. (As a relevant aside, I also loved the chance to share a Guest Post on the Blues from another student this semester!) As long as I can have such moments every semester, teaching will never get the slightest bit stale for me!

Last Fall find tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Fall finds you’d share?

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

December 20, 2023: Fall Semester Finds: New Music in Writing I

[For my annual Fall semester reflections series, I wanted to share some of the new texts and ideas I encountered this semester. I’d love to hear things you discovered or rediscovered this Fall in comments!]

The texts I highlighted in the week’s first two posts were ones I assigned in my classes, if as I said yesterday ones for which in each case it was our collective discussions that truly opened them up to me. But over the years I have likewise found ways to get student-chosen texts into many of my courses, and particularly into my First-Year Writing courses where the papers and units tend to be especially individualized. That’s especially true of the short third unit in First-Year Writing I, where students practice the skills of structured close reading through work with a song of their choice. I hope and believe that assignment offers benefits for their skills and ideas and writing, but I know for a fact it has the ancillary benefit of consistently introducing me to new music! This semester, as usual, that meant two different and equally exciting kinds of discoveries: new songs by artists I already know, like Billy Joel’s moving “Vienna”; and songs by artists who were entirely new to me, like Sleepy Hallow’s “Self Control.” My sons do what they can to keep me aware of new music and artists, and with great results to be sure; but this assignment gives me access to so many more perspectives and possibilities, and helps keep my own perspective and knowledge fresh in ways I really cherish.

Next Fall find tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Fall finds you’d share?

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

December 19, 2023: Fall Semester Finds: Espada’s Poem in Ethnic American Lit

[For my annual Fall semester reflections series, I wanted to share some of the new texts and ideas I encountered this semester. I’d love to hear things you discovered or rediscovered this Fall in comments!]

As was the case with the subject of yesterday’s post, I first discovered the poems of Martín Espada through assigning them for a class, in this case my redesigned Ethnic American Literature course. Over the years since he’s become one of my favorite American poets, for all the reasons I traced in this post among others. But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t new works of his to discover (and I don’t just mean newly published ones, although he does continue to produce new work), and this semester in Ethnic Lit one such poem of Espada’s jumped out at me anew: “Heart of Hunger” (it doesn’t seem to be online in full any more, but is well worth seeking out!). As we talked about during those class discussions (and I hope this goes without saying, but every discovery I’m highlighting in this week’s series was due much more to our collective work than my own individual ideas), what makes “Heart” particularly striking is the way Espada moves back and forth between elaborate extended metaphors and painfully concrete imagery to create a truly multilayered poetic portrayal of the immigrant experience in America, past, present, and future. I’ve been thinking and writing about that experience for decades, and this powerful poem was still able to open up new lenses on it for me, and I believe for everyone in our class.

Next Fall find tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Fall finds you’d share?

Monday, December 18, 2023

December 18, 2023: Fall Semester Finds: Nguyen’s Novel in Capstone

[For my annual Fall semester reflections series, I wanted to share some of the new texts and ideas I encountered this semester. I’d love to hear things you discovered or rediscovered this Fall in comments!]

It’s pretty rare, here in my 19th year at Fitchburg State (and 24th of college teaching overall), to get to teach a text I’ve never taught before. It’s even rarer to teach one that I haven’t had the chance to read in full prior to teaching it—and maybe that’s not recommended pedagogical practice, but it’s also a way to guarantee that I will get to read books I’ve been wanting to! That’s exactly what I was able to do in my English Studies Capstone course this semester, assigning as the Literature work (I divided the readings in that class up into the different concentrations in our English Studies Major) Eric Nguyen’s novel Things We Lost to the Water (2021). I loved Nguyen’s book, particularly the way he weaves together its two distinct yet interconnected settings of Vietnam and New Orleans (not entirely unlike one of my favorite songs, Springsteen’s “Galveston Bay”). But what I loved even more was that when we came up with a handful of questions as a class that we wanted to ask Nguyen, he responded thoughtfully and at great length, offering these graduating English Studies students (many of them professional writers in training) a vital perspective as well as a model for remaining approachable and engaging at every stage of our careers.

Next Fall find tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Fall finds you’d share?

Saturday, December 16, 2023

December 16-17, 2023: A Tribute to BostonStudiers

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to this special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On a handful of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a lot and we should all keep learning more, for this commemoration and beyond.

1)      The Tea Merchant: I have to start this tribute post with a voice who has focused on collective memories and stories of the Boston Tea Party. Economic and author Leena Bhatagar’s historical novel links that event to others in London and Calcutta, and like all historical fiction blends imagined characters and storytelling with the histories and contexts. But Leena’s November webinar for the Boston Tea Party Ships organization makes clear that she has historical analysis to contribute alongside the novel’s storytelling, and all of that makes her a voice well worth including in this weekend post.

2)      J.L. Bell: If Leena is an authority on the specific occasion for this week’s blog series, J.L. Bell is to my mind the unquestioned expert on its broad contexts: all things Boston and New England in and around the Revolutionary era. He’s also been writing a public scholarly blog on blogspot (the first hyperlink above) for even longer than me, and is thus a model for all of us out here in the blogging game. If you don’t believe me, just check out his more than 200 posts with the “Boston Tea Party” tag!

3)      Ben Edwards: One of the best ways to learn about history in Boston is to walk it, as I argued for example in my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column on the Black Heritage Trail (a vital complement to the city’s more famous Freedom Trail). And one of the best ways to do that is in the company of Walking Boston founder and tour guide (and children’s book author!) Ben Edwards. Now get out there and retrace the route from the Old South Meeting House to the Harbor!

4)      Nathaniel Sheidley: I first met Nat Sheidely when our kids were in preschool together, longer ago than I care to remember. At that time he was professing history at Wellesley College, but in the years since he’s become an integral figure in the Boston public history scene through his role as the President and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces. This weekend they’re hosting a 250th anniversary commemoration of the Tea Party, which reflects how much they’re interconnected with my topics throughout the week. But there’s a lot more to both the organization and its President, and I look forward to continuing to learn from both of them!

5)      MHS Folks: Speaking of learning, I don’t think there’s any community in Boston from whom I’ve learned as much as the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Full disclosure: I’ve also been honored to give two book talks through MHS.) There are lots of layers to that community and that learning, but it boils down to phenomenal folks like Sara Georgini, Kanisorn “Kid” Wongsrichanalai, Peter Drummey, and many many more. Can’t pay tribute to BostonStudiers without highlighting my MHS peeps!

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? BostonStudiers you’d highlight, or Tea Party takes you’d share?

Friday, December 15, 2023

December 15, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Shoemaker

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

[NB. I originally wrote this post for my 2012 Beach Reads series, but I still highly recommend Young’s book as a key part of Boston Tea Party collective memory.]

Why you should read about a shoemaker on the beach this summer [BEN: or this December, with summer on your mind!].

For those of us who are interested in writing works of AmericanStudies scholarship that will be engaging for a broad public audience, it can be particularly difficult to find great models of that style. There are plenty of hugely popular works on American history, but I would argue that most of them—such as David McCullough’s books about the Revolutionary era, or Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City—are explicitly written as narratives, focused on telling their interesting and important stories. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but once an author makes that choice, I would argue that it’s very tough for him or her to also include the kinds of analytical questions and themes with which AmericanStudies scholarship engages. So when we can find a book that does address such questions while still creating a page-turning narrative—well, that’s a good AmericanStudies beach read!

Near the top of that list, for me, is Alfred F. Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (2000). Young’s book definitely highlights a compelling story, that of Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes, a man who both took part in the city’s pre-Revolutionary 1770s events (the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party) and later led some of the 1820s efforts to commemorate those events. Yet while telling the multiple stages of Hewes’ story, Young likewise—and just as engagingly, for this reader at least—highlights and engages with some pretty crucial American questions, of historical and communal memory, of contested commemorations, of the origins of the Founding Father narrative and other Revolutionary images, and of how American stories and histories developed in the Early Republic period. Needless to say, such questions remain pretty salient today, not only with the rise of our 21st century Tea Party but in a moment when how we remember and tell the stories of our past is so crucially tied to where we go in the future.

But I’m making Young’s book sound more appropriate for the classroom than the beach. So let me be clear—this is a great story, and Young tells it very effectively; when he uses that story to address his AmericanStudies questions, he moves between those levels smoothly and successfully, and never loses sight of what makes the story engaging and meaningful for a broad American audience. Young begins his book by asking “How does an ordinary person win a place in history?”, and he not only answers that question (and many others) very thoroughly, but exemplifies a parallel idea: that history can and should be written for audiences well beyond those trained in academic historiography. Those are key lessons for any public AmericanStudiers, but they also make for a book that you’ll be entirely comfortable reading while sunbathing, drink in hand.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?

Thursday, December 14, 2023

December 14, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Peggy Stewart

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On what differentiates the “Annapolis Tea Party,” and what it adds to the Boston story.

Less than a year after the Boston Tea Party, an even more dramatic attack on a tea-laden ship took place in Annapolis, Maryland. Neither the general taxes imposed by the Townshend Acts of 1767 nor the specific ones enacted by the Tea Act of 1773, against both of which as I wrote in Monday’s post the Boston crowd was protesting, had changed in any substantive way in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. As a result, many of the colonists were taking part in another form of protest, ongoing tea boycotts, which were making things difficult for merchants hoping to trade in the popular commodity. And in the summer of 1774, a London merchant named Thomas Charles Williams decided to respond by secretly loading up a ship named the Peggy Stewart (after the daughter of its co-owner Anthony Stewart) with roughly a ton of tea and hoping to get it into America and pay the tax on it without attracting attention. He did not succeed.

To that point, the story seems like it could have unfolded very similarly to the lead-up to the Boston Tea Party. But what transpired over the five days between the Peggy Stewart’s October 14th, 1774 arrival in Annapolis and the burning of the ship and all its cargo on October 19th is quite different from, and far more organized and planned than, the events in Boston. There was an existing committee in the city that was in charge of the tea boycott, and when news of the Peggy Stewart began to spread that body convened for two separate, extended meetings and negotiations with Anthony Stewart, Williams’ two brothers and partners, and many others to decide what actions to take. Those steps included the businessmen publishing a formal apology in the Maryland Gazette and, most strikingly, a formal ceremony to burn the ship and its contents. On the evening of October 19th, in the aftermath of the second committee meeting, Stewart and the Williams brothers set the Peggy Stewart ablaze, and (as the Gazette reported it the next day) “in the presence of a great number of spectators” the ship and its cargo were destroyed.

It’s interesting to think about a Tea Party where most of the merchants were fully on board with the protest and even the destruction of their goods, although it’s worth adding that Anthony Stewart became an ardent Loyalist during the Revolution and went on to found the proto-British community of New Edinburgh in Nova Scotia. But I would also say that we should put the Boston and Annapolis Tea Parties on a continuum, and indeed that we can see the latter event as having evolved directly out of the former. That is, the Annapolis Tea Party reflects Revolutionary protesters who were learning from the past and becoming more intentional and sophisticated in their efforts to challenge the taxes, to thwart the English, and to maintain their community’s overarching goals in the face of different needs and actions from individual businessman like Williams. Too often history is boiled down to individual events or moments, but big changes develop out of multiple, interconnected such events, no two the same but no one occurring in a vacuum. As we commemorate the Boston Tea Party, let’s make sure to include Annapolis in the conversation as well.

Last Tea Party post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

December 13, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: Playing Indian

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On how the Tea Party connects to a frustrating American tradition, and one other (if still fraught) layer.

In this post as part of a June 2014 series on summer camp contexts, I highlighted an influential work of AmericanStudies scholarship that I first encountered in grad school and to which I’ve returned quite a bit since: Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998). I’ll be following up on many of that post’s ideas today, so in lieu of a full first paragraph here will ask you to check out that one (at the first hyperlink above) and then come on back.

Welcome back! It’s impossible to know for sure when the first European Americans “played Indian,” dressed up as Native Americans, but there’s no doubt that a relatively early example was the many Boston Tea Party participants who donned Mohawk or Narragansett costumes before taking part in the protest. In the summer camp examples of playing Indian that I considered in that prior post, one consistent and main motivation behind this deeply troubling collective action seems to be to tap into something more primal or natural than one’s everyday identity, a concept which at the very least stereotypes Native Americans as those things if it doesn’t directly reflect images of “savages” (as it far too often does, of course). And it seems quite clear to me that the Boston Tea Party participants who dressed up were likewise expressing that stereotyping perspective, linking themselves to what foundational Massachusetts Puritan William Bradford called “wild lands and wild men.”

On the other hand, historical actions and events always have multiple contexts, and in this case it is important to note that the Sons of Liberty had been donning Native American costumers for nearly a decade by the time of the Tea Party. That post cites a chapter from Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (1991) by historians Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen in which the authors argue that the Sons used these costumes to represent their authentically American identity, in overt opposition to that of the English colonial power against which they were rebelling. That’s a convincing take, and one that of course reflects an evolving Revolutionary-era argument that the Tea Party both embodied and helped further. Yet even then, I would say that this example of playing Indian connects to a concept like the “noble savage,” a more flattering stereotype of Native Americans that nonetheless consistently imagines them as part of a vanished past rather than a coexisting and complex present. A present itself embodied by a famous participant at another Boston protest: Crispus Attucks.

Next Tea Party post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

December 12, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Adams Boys

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On how the two famous cousins contrasted yet complemented each other, and one more layer to those comparisons.

More than 5000 Bostonians—roughly a third of the city’s entire population—didn’t just randomly gather outside the Old South Meeting House on the evening of December 16th, 1773. A couple weeks earlier, on November 29th, local political leader and radical activist Samuel Adams had held a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall to protest the new taxes England was imposing on the tea trade. That meeting grew so large it had to move to the Old South Meeting House, and it led to both a resolution demanding that the Dartmouth (about which I wrote yesterday) depart without paying the tax and a posse of men who stood guard at the ship to ensure the tea would not be unloaded. The Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to let the ship leave without paying the tax, and when the December 16th deadline for its departure arrived, an even larger group of angry Bostonians gathered at another meeting led by Samuel Adams. While the ensuing Tea Party itself may have developed organically, rather than as a plan of Adams’ (although as that article notes this remains a point of historical contention), there’s no doubt that he was instrumental in creating the circumstances for this radical act of collective protest.

Not present at the meeting or the Tea Party was Samuel’s second cousin, the young lawyer and activist John Adams. But his absence doesn’t mean that he was in any way opposed to the event (which some might assume given his earlier role defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, for example). John was simply not in town on December 16th, and when he learned of the Tea Party the next day, he wrote about it very enthusiastically in his diary: “This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable and striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an Epocha in History.” John was always more about words than actions, and these are bold words indeed.

The complementary roles of words and actions is a somewhat reductive but, it seems to me, fundamentally accurate way to think about what John and Samuel Adams contributed respectively to the Revolutionary cause. But I would say that there’s another way to frame this complementary contrast, and perhaps an even more meaningful one when it comes to thinking about pre-Revolutionary events like the Tea Party. Samuel was largely focused on immediate and practical concerns—an onerous new tax, ships full of tea, the question of whether and how a city’s residents could respond to and help alter these realities. John, as we see in that diary entry, was thinking much more philosophically, considering questions of patriotic duty and history-changing epochs. Events like the Boston Tea Party can’t transpire at all without the focus and direction that Samuel provided—but they can’t necessarily become part of an incipient world-changing event like the American Revolution without the frame that John did.

Next Tea Party post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?