The Unexpectedness of Beauty

In this fascinating and wonderfully candid audio discussion, URI Professors Mary Cappello and Peter Covino discuss the complex, philosophical notion of “beauty” from a variety of intermingled perspectives: the artistic, the pedagogical and the personal. Cappello, a well-known writer of literary nonfiction, and Covino, an accomplished poet, describe ways in which “unexpected beauty” surfaces in and informs their own creative projects. Sometimes in life this “unexpectedness” presents as a form of, what Peter Covino calls, “dark energy”: things like trauma, abuse, violence. Yet this “dark energy” can provide the opportunity for a cathartic form of beauty to surface. Professor Covino goes on to describe writing poetry as a challenge toward self-recognition and “self-soothing” — what he describes in a one of his poems as the “soothe-less tangle” of language. He views language as offering a medium of solace: “you’re not sure how terrible your pain is, you’re not sure how difficult your challenges are, until you start to write them down, until you start to share your stories.” This translation of struggle, the articulation and expression of it, can be beautiful.

Mary Cappello describes her aesthetic at one point as a form of “disruptive beauty.” She is interested in “jaggedness” and “interruptive beauty”: an idea she defines as emerging “out of confrontation, over and against a determination to aestheticize experience.” Further, Professor Cappello offers a very interesting way of thinking about “ugliness” less binaristically with respect to beauty; she invites us to think of it as a differential, the space between the lyrical and the jagged: “I was thinking of a beauty not opposed to ugliness…can we talk about anti-beauty, unbeauty, or create a new term altogether?” She encourages the artist to be alive to the “availability of beauty,” and to be on the lookout for “beauty in unexpected places.”

Throughout this rich and in-depth conversation on beauty, both Cappello and Covino share interesting details of their lives, their creative process, as well as read from each other’s (and their students’) work. The full audio conversation can be found here. Some shorter snippets of their conversation are also available from the links below.

Alumna Megan Sullivan Promotes Interdisciplinary Studies at Boston University

CGS Prof. Megan SullivanI had the pleasure of speaking with Megan Sullivan, a 1996 alumna of the URI doctoral program in English.  Megan is certainly a URI success story.  In addition to being an Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Megan is now the Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development at Boston University, as well the school’s Director for the Center of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning.  She works out of the university’s College of General Studies (CGS), which offers students their first two years of core curriculum courses before they matriculate into their majors.  CGS faculty work as a team, meeting every week to talk about what and how they are teaching.  Courses are team-taught using an interdisciplinary approach.  It is out of this approach, which has a focus on “doing undergraduate education well,” that the online journal IMPACT was born.  Now as editor of that publication, Megan explained to me how it all started, and how she and her fellow editorial board members work to promote it.

IMPACT is an online, peer-reviewed journal, which “foregrounds interdisciplinary teaching and learning.”  It has been published semi-annually since 2012.  Each issue features at least one or two articles on interdisciplinary approaches to teaching, in addition to articles that demonstrate interdisciplinary scholarship, and reviews of interdisciplinary books.  The focus of all published pieces is on thinking in an interdisciplinary manner.  The editorial board of IMPACT is currently working to get it included in the MLA International Bibliography.  Megan encourages all URI faculty and students who are conducting interdisciplinary scholarship to submit to the journal.  In fact, IMPACT hosts an essay contest each year, with submissions due by the first Monday of December.  I assured her that there were many of us thinking and working across disciplines at URI, and that she would be sure to hear from us in the near future!

Megan’s interest in interdisciplinary scholarship was already in evidence during her years at URI.  Her dissertation topic focused on women writers, filmmakers, and dramatists in Northern Ireland.  Although URI did not have an Irish Studies department, she said her faculty committee, headed by Mary Cappello, was very supportive.  In fact Megan calls Mary, “a wonderful mentor and friend,” who recognized and nurtured Megan’s talent during her years at URI.  She found it no problem to pull together a committee that met her needs.

Directly after defending her dissertation, Megan had her choice of two faculty positions at Boston University: one in Humanities and one in Rhetoric.  Though she specialized in literature during her graduate studies, Megan chose the position in Rhetoric because it offered smaller class sizes and more stability for her  at the time.  When asked how her experience at URI had prepared her for that position, Megan said she had studied Rhetoric with Nedra Reynolds, and learned to teach Composition during her graduate program.  Still, she always thought she would teach literature for her career.  She does, however, incorporate Irish writers into her courses, and every other summer teaches a graduate or undergraduate course in Irish Studies, just to “keep her toes” in that field.  Megan stressed that taking a position teaching writing has allowed her to explore a different path than she ever expected.  Her advice to current URI graduate English students is to keep an open mind about the positions we seek upon graduation.  You never know where they will lead.

I encourage you to check out the interesting work being published in IMPACT, and perhaps think about submitting a piece of interdisciplinary scholarship yourself.

http://sites.bu.edu/impact/

Big Names Visit A Small State

June 19-21 marked the 8th annual Ocean State Summer Writing Conference. Annually, the University of Rhode Island’s Department of English brings together writers from across the spectrum of place and profession for three electric days of learning, networking and practice. From Harvard to UPenn, from RIC to Brown, from California to Florida, from Providence to Bristol, writers of all walks of life enjoy workshops, craft sessions and readings.

Besides the tremendously popular keynotes at this year’s gathering, from Alison Bechdel, Charles Bernstein and Percival Everett, certain events stood out as participant favorites.

Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar returned to the conference (after being a keynote speaker at the 2013 conference) and was met with great enthusiasm. One of his events was a conversation with Guggenheim Fellow and Professor Mary Cappello, where they addressed the “turning points” of their careers, their drive and their practice–to a standing room-only group of attendees. Of his former professor from his time as an undergraduate at SUNY/Buffalo, Akhtar has said that Cappello played a key role in shaping him as a writer.

Elaine Sexton and Kristin Prevallet also made a tremendous impact on their attendees. A conversation between the two during the penultimate time slot of the conference addressed a subject on the mind of anyone who has attended a conference before: “What now?” Sexton and Prevallet conversed on subjects like community building, networking, getting published, being employed–important questions, especially to poets. Their insight impacted the group as they both have worked extensively in a variety of fields.

National Book Award nominee and Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, Jody Lisberger had one of the most well-attended events. Her craft session, “Writing or Wanting to Write a Novel or Book-Length Memoir–Strategies for Success” was held in the Agnes G. Doody Auditorium to a group of more than 70.

There were many talented and accomplished writers at the conference in June, and whether they were familiar with the conference from previous years or new to the University of Rhode Island, they contributed to a terrific experience for many of Rhode Island’s writers.

 

The Accomplishment and Benefit of Professor Jones’ Pedagogy

Jennifer Jones

Thirst.  If I were only able to prescribe a single word to reflect upon her being, “thirst”

would extend beyond all others.  Professor Jennifer Jones perspires a thirst to engage the minds of all who stand before her.  With such a profound desire to excite imagination and intellect, it comes as no surprise that Professor Jones was recently honored with the 2014 URI Foundation Teaching Excellence Award.

Whether you’ve had the opportunity to study with her or not, my hope is that through reading the following, readers may collectively engage with and be inspired by Professor Jennifer Jones’ thirst.

 

Q:  What do you believe is foundational to produce and maintain seminars that are beneficial to both student and professor?

JJ: The English graduate seminar is an occasion for the dynamic interplay between research and pedagogy.  This cooperation between professor and students is best supported by a course design that reflects two mutually reinforcing, but nevertheless different, concerns.  As a first priority, I take it as my responsibility to introduce a topic, an archive, and a set of concerns, and then lead students through this course of study.  The second priority is to give students the inspiration and tools to analyze how and why a given course has been put together in a particular way, and to what purpose(s).  By the conclusion of a seminar, students should not only gain a sense of mastery over a particular set of texts and ideas, but also a meta-critical sense of their value within a field, multiple fields, the discipline of English Studies, and other disciplines…To my mind, a seminar reaches an ideal state when a professor can serve as an intellectual guide whose skills as both speaker and listener are equally deft.  It is in this context that professor and students ultimately use a core set of texts and concerns not only to master canonical knowledge, but also to create new knowledge…

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Congratulations to Anna Brecke and the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association!

I  had a chance to catch up with Anna Brecke, a Ph.D. candidate focusing on Victorian Studies. Anna has recently co-founded the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association and I wanted to hear more about how this organization came into being. Here’s the result of our interview.

 

Q: Congratulations on co-founding the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association! How many members do you currently have and where are they from?

AB: When Dr. Janine Hatter and I launched the organization last year, it was what you would call a soft launch. We started with just a concept, an email address, and a twitter feed. So right now, I think we have around 20-25 interested parties, mostly from the US, UK and Australia, who’ve joined a mailing list and are getting involved with the organization. This July we held an inaugural meeting at the Victorian Popular Fiction Association conference.

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CFPList Innovatively Brings CFP Information to Scholars

Visitors to CFPList.com, the call for papers website run by URI English Ph.D. students Derick Ariyam and Michael Becker, will find a clean, innovative way to search calls for papers, conference information, writing awards, and calls for chapters and articles. The site’s organization and streamlined, user-friendly interface distinguishes it from other CFP sites. On it, scholars can search by the three criteria Becker and Ariyam use to structure the site: time (date), location, and topic. Ariyam and Becker saw the need for an easily navigable CFP database that was designed differently.  As for that clean look, Ariyam explains, “To begin, I wanted a minimalist aesthetic that would allow people to see key things, like dates, right away. I wanted it to be responsive and quick.” Becker adds that he was blown away by the prototype’s clean style because he “had this idea of what the tools could be like, but hadn’t yet given much thought to the minimalist, organized, readable structure of the site. We talked about the color choices—green, purple, and orange—for the color-coding of the standardization of the site.”

Courtesy of CFPlist.com
Courtesy of CFPlist.com

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Talking About the Job Market with Tim Amidon

Few things strike fear into the hearts of many graduate students quite like the prospect of entering into the academic job market. People tend to cope with the looming future in their own unique ways: denial, anger, depression—really any of the five stages of grief apply here. However, one of our own success stories, Tim Amidon, has conquered the job market quite handily, recently landing his dream position at Colorado State University. Tim generously agreed to pass some of his wisdom and advice on to us.

Create a marketable identity: Tim urges graduate students to strive to be both well rounded AND specialized. We all know that our work must be stellar and conferencing is a must, but to enhance future marketability Tim stresses the importance of getting involved here on campus through service and organizations. Also, consider how you can shape your professional identity on a national scale through workshops, publishing, and other professional opportunities. These experiences will boost your marketability and they will also offer the chance to forge vital connections. According to Tim, “Do everything you do well, but do something exceptionally.”

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UPDATE: Alt-Ac’s URI History: An Interview with Donna Bickford

As a follow up to Kim Wickham’s interview with Donna Bickford that appeared on our blog on February 26th, we have learned that Dr. Bickford was recently honored with an Award for the Advancement of Women.  Dr. Bickford’s achievement is featured in the article “Three receive University Award for Advancement of Women,” available on The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s website.  We offer her our congratulations!

Adolescence and New England Film Through the Cinema and Research of Michele Meek

The reverie of adolescence and precocious little girls fills the artistic and

Cassie (Shelby Mackenzie Flynn) plays with her food in Red Sneakers. Photo by Geoff Meek
Cassie (Shelby Mackenzie Flynn) plays with her food in Red Sneakers.
Photo by Geoff Meek

scholarly world of Michele Meek, filmmaker, teacher, and English Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island.  Michele’s creative talents can be seen through her writing, directing, and editing of her films, including Conversations With Women: Masturbation, Bubble Gum Ice Cream, and Red SneakersRed Sneakers won the 2nd Place Children’s Film Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and has gone on to screen across the country.  In 1997, Michele founded the website NewEnglandFilm.com, a site that remains devoted to keeping New England up-to-date with the local film scene, as well as provides avenues for cast, crew, and film companies to engage with one another.

Recently, I sat down with Michele to discuss film distribution, future projects, and her research.

Q: How did you first become involved in the filmmaking community?

MM: While working on my master’s thesis in screenwriting, I worked at Where Magazine, which is a publication for tourists in Boston.  I started to wonder, “Why isn’t there a publication for filmmakers to stay in touch with what’s happening in the local community?” So, I launched NewEnglandFilm.com thinking that I’d eventually move it to a print magazine. Then, of course, it just made sense as a website.  I realized it was more interactive and up-to-date, so it just grew from there.

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Alt-Ac’s URI History: An Interview with Donna Bickford

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.

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