Inaugural Reading: Graduate Literary Arts Committee

December, traditionally, is a gift-driven season. It doesn’t matter if they’re the abstract gifts sung about in holiday tunes, the gifts of rest and relaxation, literal gifts—wrapping-papered and bowed—or the gift of time spent with family and friends… even the Grinchiest of us enjoys a good gift in December. And this year, the Graduate Literary Arts committee had a gift of its own to share with its Rhode Island friends and URI family: its inaugural graduate reading.

The reading was hosted by the Willett Free Library, which is a brilliant little library that deserves a visit regardless of whether or not any literary events are on the horizon, and it took place over the course of an hour, giving each of its three readers approximately twenty minutes to share their work.

One of the most compelling facets of the reading (outside of the readings themselves) was the lineup, which showcased an undergraduate student, Nate Vaccaro; a master’s student, Sam Simas; and a doctoral student, Elizabeth Foulke.  It was nice to see a reading put together in a way that celebrates and honors students at varying level of academe, bridging the gaps so often seen between these programs during an evening of shared artistry.

Nate, the first to read, read from a large span of his work, starting with some of his earliest poems (which he had recently revisited and revised), and then moved briefly to poetry that reveled in the building and exploration of soundscapes before ending with a series of poems focused on bodies—which ranged from the insightful considerations of the human body to political examinations of constructed bodies, like Trump Tower.

Following Nate was Sam Simas, who read a single, sectioned piece entitled “Orlando,” which spoke in response to and contemplation of the shootings that took place there earlier this year. The piece, operating through numbered sections, moved in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, shifting from character to character and moment to moment in a way that presented ideas and dissolved them into something different and surprising but inevitable, mirroring the emotional valences that surrounded the shooting and the dialogue that followed it.

Last (but, as they say, not least) to read was Elizabeth Foulke, who read from one of her non-fiction essays. In it she presented the world through the eyes of a single person navigating social constructs seemingly built for the promotion of individuals already in relationships. The work was at times serious and contemplative; in other moments it was a bit sad and searching; and—not un-occasionally—it was a hilarious display of a fiercely biting wit. Foulke’s essay kept the audience on the edge of their seats at every moment, and with each moment of laughter and frowning thought that she invoked, she helped to reveal the world in a compelling new color.

Early on in the event, more seats were dragged out for patrons as the available chairs had all been claimed. It was really wonderful to see such a great show of support for an inaugural reading like this, and with one or two additional readings promised by the Graduate Literary Arts committee for the Spring semester, there will be ample opportunities for those who missed out to get their fair share of poetry and prose in the months to come. All in all it was a great event, and I have no doubt that those who came to listen walked away with a lot more than they initially bargained for.

Interview with Department Chair, Dr. Travis Williams

  1. What do you think are some of the challenges facing the department?

Numbers. We need more undergraduate and graduate enrollment, and we also need more full-time faculty hires. As usual, of course, we also need more funding at every level. These things all work together: the more undergraduates that are enrolled, the more teachers we can hire. Higher enrollment in the graduate program is also vital, especially completed degrees because that satisfies the University. In very basic ways, it provides the reasons for why we exist

  1. On the heels of that, do those challenges change in the wake of the recent election results?

Yes. We are very worried about the election results. Money for the humanities is already comparatively low and it could get even lower if the state does not receive the funding that it usually receives. There are three direct ways it could affect us: first, if there is a decrease in direct aid to students (in the form of grant aide, scholarship aide, and fellowship aide at every level); second, if student loans continue to be as expensive as they are in terms of interest rates, or it they get worse; third, if science funding really decreases. It is not an exaggeration to think that this may be a very anti-science administration and Congress. If funding for science is cut, then the University may feel the need to redistribute its funds, and that could mean that it would squeeze the humanities even more than it does already.

I am also worried about the revival of the kinds of culture wars of the late 80s with attacks on things like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which were really terrible and from which I don’t think we have yet properly recovered. I don’t see any positive change happening there either.

  1. What new things are being talked about in the department?

 Back to the numbers question. We are trying be more organized and deliberate about how we recruit students to our various programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level, how we retain them once they are here, and how we keep in touch with them once they’ve left us. And I think in various different ways – undergraduate to graduate— we are trying to re-conceptualize what these programs are really meant to be doing and how we present them and sell them, frankly, to the people we want to be participating in them. As we know, the issue at the graduate level is that there are many, many more PhDs than there are academic jobs and I don’t see that changing considering the last question concerning the federal situation. So, re-conceptualizing what one can do with a PhD in the humanities, something that Professor Davis is working really hard on right now, and that might lead to changes in the structuring of programs, the offerings available, different tracks within a degree that people might choose from. It is all very new so none of that is certain yet, but it is what we are talking about very seriously because it is a market world and we have to move with the market. We are no longer insulated, if we ever were, from these pressures.

 At the undergraduate level, where we’ve lost 40 percent of our majors in the last eight years we need to allay fears that an undergraduate degree in English is a dead end where basically a productive career and financial security is not attainable. It certainly is not a dead end and there is plenty of evidence to show that, but that evidence has not yet caught up with the people who make larger, broader decisions at the University. And parents are still quite anxious about what a degree in English may or may not do for their children. So, representing ourselves, speaking more clearly and finding opportunities to make contact with these groups is something I am working very hard on as chair.

  1. How is the department talking about hot issues, such as adjuncts?

 Adjuncts are certainly not an ideal way to staff courses. Tenure track is always best. Here at URI we have gone from 28 to 17 tenure track positions since 2006 and we still offer so many classes. This is a poor labor and pedagogical model, especially when we think that the undergraduate needs to build relationships with the faculty. Also, tenure tracks are here for a long time, which is of course not the case with itinerant faculty. We also need to make more generous working conditions for adjuncts. We need to bring them in. We need to extend the invitation to participate. And we also need to increase morale among adjuncts.

  1. What are some goals that you have for the department? What are some of the things that you want to get done in your time as chair that you would like people to know about?

 As chair, I first want to keep things running smoothly. As for goals, we want to work on increasing numbers, which we have talked about. We need to fundraise for all kinds of reasons. We need to contact alumni. We need more general student support in the form of scholarships, fellowships, grants, etc. We also need to expand overseas activities and we need to draw more support for that. We need to grow our creative writing activities. We need to do more things like micro-scholarships to help poorer students. And we need more secure funding at the graduate level, especially in the form of endowed scholarships. That is more of a long-term goal. These are some of the things I will be working on.