Each year I attend the annual conference for the Society for Comparative Literature and the Arts. It is a medium-sized, incredibly supportive and welcoming event. Their support for graduate students, non-tenured and adjunct faculty, and independent scholars shows a deep commitment to both the humanities in general and an acknowledgment of the disparities and challenges that face the discipline. Thus, it was not surprising to see on this year’s conference schedule showed a special roundtable, “Making Our Departments and Disciplines Less Oppressive.” The roundtable was intended to address the ways in which the current climate in the U.S. was affecting not only departments, but students at various institutions, and to hopefully offer some ideas and suggestions on how we might better support colleagues and students at our own institutions.
This past weekend I attended the annual meeting for the Society of Comparative Literature and the Arts. In addition to chairing a panel and participating in the requisite conference mingling (I didn’t present a paper this year), I was also invited to host a special workshop.
SCLA is a wonderful organization I’ve been involved with for quite some time and the annual conference is one of the most low-key and supportive conferences I’ve attended. As such, it attracts a good number of graduate students, and even some undergrads—one year we even had an entire undergrad panel. Because of this, for many this is one of their first, if not their first, conference. What many of us who have been conferencing for a while, and feel comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, forget is that the conference paper—taking it from term paper, to conference paper, to presentation—is a unique and sometimes strange genre. The workshop, Crafting the Conference Paper, was set up to take new or inexperienced conference presenters and walk them through the steps one takes to make a conference paper successful. (Or to simply remind veteran presenters of the fundamentals J )
I was very excited about this idea, as it is often something that is left unaddressed—one simply writes a paper, sends in an abstract, gets accepted, cuts the paper down to length, then reads it in front of a group of people, right? And yet, those of us who have been to conferences can attest to how often the conference paper goes wrong. This workshop was an attempt to lay out explicitly how one takes a written paper, to a conference paper, to a presentation.
The first part of the workshop focused on editing the written document. I know I myself have been guilty of taking a paper I’ve written, cutting it down to 12 pages, and saying “Done! Ready for the conference!” and putting this presentation together was a great reminder as to why that is the wrong way to go. The way we write papers does not often translate smoothly into a swepoken presentation. Because your audience is listening and not reading, organization, signposting, and transitions are absolutely critical. We went over how even strategies that might seem overly simplistic in written work, are actually very successful in a presentation. Things like “I argue,” “there are three main points I’ll be covering,” “my first example is” are useful for listeners to more clearly follow what you are arguing. We also discussed that it is important to think about how one integrates quotes. In a written work, they are, of course, indicated by quotation marks. But when you read your paper, you need to think about what you’re going to do with those. If the paper is quote heavy, saying “quote/end quote” over and over can become distracting and tedious for the listening. We talked about a number of other editing issues, then moved on to the presentation itself.
While many of the presentation suggestions seem like common sense—sit up straight, project, make eye contact—we sometimes forget these simple strategies. Also, the conference paper has added components. Where are you going to hold your paper? Will
you lay it on the table? What does that do to your posture? Will you read it on a computer or laptop? How will you navigate the pages?
The discussion session was lively, with people asking questions, sharing their own strategies, or anecdotes where they were in the audience during a presentation that went
wrong so we could brainstorm how to avoid similar mistakes. The handout was a topic of great interest. Most people noted that they had rarely encountered a handout that actually added something valuable to the presentation, more often they seemed to simply distract the listener, giving them something to read while the presenter was speaking. Extemporizing was also something several people wanted to examine. How and when to speak extemporaneously? How can you insert “planned” extemporaneous sections to make your presentation connect more with the audience without rambling and eating up your time?
Overall, this workshop was extremely rewarding and, even though I was leading it and planned our topics of discussion, it was a great reminder to me to not get lazy with my presentations, and to conscientiously approach every conference paper with my audience clearly in mind. The turnout also exceeded my expectations, and everyone was engaged and ready to discuss and do work. I think this indicates that there is a real interest in special sessions like these, where graduate students can gather and hone their craft in an informal and welcoming environment.
More info on SCLA can be found here: http://complit-scla.org/
In the front of the room sits a panel of four veterans, all prepared to talk about their unique experiences with homecoming. The event, supported by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, is a unique opportunity for both the veterans and audience to engage with literature, film, and historical writings as a way to situate and relate their own experiences. The event opens with an introduction from Prof. Widell of the History Department. He talked about the importance of humanities texts in interrogating the language of homecoming and stressed that what people often forget in history is that it is not only about telling stories, but about listening. The panel of veterans was asked to read and watch several different texts selected by the event organizers. For this particular panel, focusing on texts dealing with World War I, Prof. Widell selected works from WEB du Bois, Allen Berube, Ira Katznelson, and Donnie Williams. Tom Conroy from Film and Media asked the panelists to watch The Best Years of Our Lives and read a companion piece to the film. Molly Hall from English chose works by Mary Borden, James Europe, and JD Salinger.
After a brief introduction from each member of the committee outlining the specific works they chose for the panel, Prof. Widell opened the floor to the panelists, asking them to first identify themselves and give a short biography. Chad McFarlane spent five years in the Army as a tanker, eventually earning the rank of Sargeant. He is currently a senior at URI. Michael Steiner, also a senior at URI, joined the Navy and worked as a Radar Tech, serving through three deployments in the Persian Gulf and one in the western Pacific. Denny Cosmo was already in infantry school when the twin towers were hit in NYC. He served with the 325th Infantry Airborne division as an intelligence collector in Iraq. He is currently attending CCRI. Finally, Ashley Aldarondo-Martinez spent four years in the Army as a Human Resource Specialist and currently works for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
After their introductions, the panelists were asked to respond generally to the materials they had read and seen. “Blind,” a selection from Mary Borden, seemed to touch many of the panelists for the ways in which Borden deployed blindness as a metaphor. In the excerpt, the panelists noticed that soldiers seemed blind to the other men lying on cots right next to them, the nurses had to in many ways be blind to the suffering they saw, and those that welcomed the soldiers back seemed blind to their experience. Du Bois was also popular for the ways in which he encouraged black soldiers to dedicate themselves to the war effort in order to gain more rights back home in America. Building on this reading, Chad recalled a moment when, after returning from basic training he entered a dry cleaning store. Initially, he received a less than warm welcome, but when he pulled his uniform out the clerk’s eyes lit up and his whole demeanor changed. It seems that the uniform acted as an equalizer. Each panelist agreed that The Best Years of Our Lives captured the ambivalence of homecoming. While none believed that their time in the service were “the best years of their lives,” they identified with the strong sense ofcomradery the men felt in the film that was in some ways lacking upon their return.
The question and answer session was also very lively with a lot of audience participation. One of the best questions of the afternoon concerned what each of the panelists would recommend as “improvements” or modifications to the current process of discharge and reintegration. Panelists mentioned a greater focus on entrepreneurship and putting veterans’ unique skills to use in starting their own businesses, a better explanation and guidance in maximizing the GI Bill and specific skills to succeed in college, and a focus on asking veterans where they wanted to fit into society and what they wanted to be doing instead of attempting to take skills learned in the service and translate them directly into a job.
The session was brought to a close when a gentleman in the audience, a veteran himself, thanked all of the panelists for not only their service but their willingness to partici
pate in this forum. His sincerity was echoed by, I think, everyone in the audience and underscored the importance of opening up spaces in which people have the chance to truly listen to others’ experiences. The next session focuses on texts centered on the Vietnam War and is being hosted by the Providence Public Library on Oct. 16 at 2pm. More information, as well as links to the works the veteran panel will be reading can be found here: http://rivetsspeak.weebly.com/
Being part of the URI community means having access to all of the amazing speakers hosted by not only our department but by all of the various foundations and schools throughout the university. In addition to this, our unique location also positions us to take advantage of a community of other universities in the Northeast who host their own speaker events. Thanks to the diligence of the English department, we are kept up to date on these various events that might hold particular interest for those of us in the humanities. It was through one of these emails that I learned that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would be speaking at RISD, a short drive from URI’s campus.
I had never been to the Rhode Island School of Design (otherwise known as RISD), but found it easily enough (after missing the first exit I was supposed to take – Providence roads still confound me). The talk was held in their auditorium and it quickly filled. Initially, I found it curious that Spivak, a postcolonial literary theorist perhaps best known for her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and her introduction and translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, would be speaking at a school of art and design. However, my confusion only demonstrated my own limited view of the humanities and perhaps a too rigid view of departmental borders. Spivak’s talk was part of the Global Forum Series at RISD which seeks to address the global, interconnected world in which RISD graduates’ contributions will “shape the cultural, social and environmental innovations of future generations” (http://gpp.risd.edu/descriptiongoals/). Spivak’s own academic work in postcolonialism as well as her “philanthropic” work speaks directly to these concerns.
Spivak’s talk focused on epistemological concerns posing an intellectual challenge: is it possible to learn from epistemological machines that have been damaged? From there she raised the distinction between play in the world vs. play of the world utilizing two competing or at least divergent definitions of design—to plan or sketch something artistically and to scheme or contrive—embodied by Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book The Pleasure in Drawing and a recent post from the Harvard Business School, respectively. Both, she claims, ignore the play of the world. From here she spoke briefly of Derrida’s reading of Rousseau’s critique of supplement that color, as supplement, somehow corrupts design. Rousseau, Spivak highlights, never makes explicit the lack that necessitates supplementation in the first place.
Constrained by time, Spivak was forced to skip over a more detailed discussion of her previous points and ended with a call to the humanities, saying that what we have to ask ourselves is how to people know themselves. She reiterated that often the plan of what one (or a government) seeks to achieve is marked by the absence of questions of what is truly needed and so, while you may accomplish something, it is rarely what you initially intended. For this reason, we must expand the circle of people who can learn from literature.
The faculty question and answer session that accompanied Spivak’s talk was, for me, the most enjoyable part of the forum. Spivak touched on a range of issues, from the concept of teaching from below (accompanied by an extremely entertaining anecdote about an elephant that was terrorizing an African village where she had gone to guest teach an English class to young children) and how to engage with and work with various groups of people, to the advent of artificial intelligence. What resonated most with me was her discussion of her work in rural India. In discussing her work with various charities, she criticizes calling this philanthropy, instead viewing it as a repayment of the historical denial of intellectual resources that, while she herself is not actively engaging in, has occurred for millennia and from which she has benefited.
Attending this event was a wonderful experience. Because of our department’s tireless efforts to make sure we are kept up to date on all of the various resources that exist, not only at URI, I was able to see speak in person a woman whose work I have always found inspiring.
We are excited to announce that our own Jenna Guitar, a first-year PhD student, has recently published a chapter in Glee and New Directions for Social Change. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work and the publishing process. Congratulations!
Q: First, can you give us a brief synopsis of your chapter? A sentence or two take-away if you will.
A: My paper is occupied with examining the ways theatrical performance can help high school students understand Butler’s theory of fluid identity. The paper focuses on a specific season one moment in the television show Glee. The students are asked to “go Gaga” as they perform various Lady Gaga songs to tap into their theatrical identities. By tapping into these theatrical personas, the students learn that their identities are fluid and not stagnant. Essentially they perform Butler’s seminal argument concerning identity in the episode, which I found to be fascinating.
Q: I’d like to ask a bit about the process involved in getting this published. Was this a term paper that you found a call for, or did you find a call for chapters and decide to write this?
A: This was originally a seminar paper from a Queer Theory course I took at New Mexico State University. I later presented the paper at the National PCA/ACA in Washington DC, while I was working on my Master’s degree at SUNY New Paltz. From that conference I was approached by the editors of the book who were interested in including my essay in their collection Glee and New Directions for Social Change. The book was just recently published in January. All in all, this was a five year process from writing it to actually getting it published.
Q: How was the peer review process? Was it nerve wracking? Did you get constructive feedback?
A: My editors were very kind. They offered some minor tweaks and revisions, but the most labor intensive changes stemmed from having to change everything from MLA to APA. The book is interdisciplinary and the two editors kept going back and forth about how the book should be formatted and finally determined it should be in APA. So, it was a bit tedious changing everything to the new format, especially because I was not very familiar with how APA worked.
Q: Did you find anything about working with pop culture particularly challenging, or liberating?
A: I often work with popular culture, so I really felt in my element. I feel most comfortable in the pop culture arena and am always really excited when I get to do a project along those lines.
Q: Do you want to work on Glee in the future? Is the high school experience something you are interested in, or was the chance to talk about gender performativity the greater draw?
A: I’m not sure if I would work with the television show Glee again. I wouldn’t be opposed, but I don’t have any plans as of yet. However, I am fascinated by representations of high school students in television and would definitely like to continue research in that area at some point. Gender studies is one of my main research interests and generally the lens I adopt in my work, so that was definitely a draw.
On February 12th, faculty and students were treated to an eloquent and thought-provoking talk from Ph.D. candidate, Kim Evelyn, at an event hosted by the English Graduate Colloquium. Kim’s presentation, titled “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging,” highlighted a paradox central to British colonial identity– the incongruity between a British Caribbean individual’s sense of national belonging and the feeling of exclusion. The multigenerational Caribbean characters of Smith’s White Teeth struggle with the difficult idea of “home,” recounting family histories in order to create a narrative of identity foundational to their experiences of diaspora.
Following her talk, I asked Kim to elaborate on what it was like to participate in the Graduate Colloquium.
Q: Can you briefly tell us how your talk fits into your larger project?
KE: The talk came out of my second dissertation chapter on George Lamming’s novel The Emigrants and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. My project looks at conceptualizations of home (the idea of it, domestic homes, national homes, and the necessary questions of belonging and identity that stem from that) in the literature of the Caribbean diaspora in the UK. Continue reading “A Talk by Kim Evelyn: “Speaking Home and History: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Narratives of National Belonging””
If the term “alt-ac” is unfamiliar to you, it won’t be for long. The 2013 Modern Language Association Conference held a special session “How did I get here? Our ‘Altac’ jobs”; searching for “alt-ac” in the Chronicle of Higher Education returns around 60 results; and, the term is quickly becoming commonplace in academic departments. Alt-ac is short for “alternative academic,” referring to careers held by scholars in the academy that are outside of the traditional tenure track, often in administration. Those in alt-ac careers are generally Ph.D.-holding staff members, who not only work in administration, but also research, write, and teach. While these “administrator scholars” are valuable assets to the university, the lack of a clear support system and lingering hierarchical tensions still needs to be addressed in order for universities, departments, and students to benefit fully from this resource. Attention has, therefore, turned to the need, at departmental- and university-levels, for further discussion of alt-ac careers and an array of related issues, including the growing use of adjuncts, digital humanities, and graduate/professional student preparation. While alt-ac careers do not “solve” the myriad hiring issues within the humanities, they are fast becoming recognized as legitimate and attractive options for those who do not see themselves in tenure-track positions, but who still have much to offer to the academy.
I was fortunate enough to conduct an e-interview with Donna Bickford, one of the leading voices in the alt-ac community, and an alum of the University of Rhode Island, having earned her Ph.D. in English. Links to her two Chronicle articles, co-written with Anne Mitchell Whisnant, can be found below, along with other pertinent writings on the present and future conditions of alt-ac careers.