On October 3, 2017 the English department welcomed Dr. Maurice S. Lee of Boston University to present his lecture titled “Testing Literature and Producing Knowledge in Moby-Dick.” Dr. Lee is currently the Hilles Bush Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and is exploring the connections between 19th century literature and that period’s information revolution. His current project, Overwhelming Words: Literature, Aesthetics, and the 19th-Century Information Revolution, informed his talk at URI.
On September 19, 2017, hundreds of people packed the Ryan Center to hear primatologist and legend Jane Goodall speak. Goodall, who is most well known for her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania, gave a captivating talk as part of the URI Honors Colloquium, whose theme this year is Origins: Life, the Universe and Everything. The talk began with Goodall describing her childhood, as she became fascinated with animals and nature at a very young age. She credits her mother with fostering this love of nature, and encouraging Goodall to pursue a career outside of the limits set for women in the 1940s and 1950s. Goodall described her first job in the field of primatology as one happening by chance as she visited a friend in Tanzania and was introduced to archaeologist Louis Leakey. This first assignment proved groundbreaking, and after receiving a doctorate from Newnham College at Cambridge University (without even having a bachelors first!), Goodallcontinued challenging contemporary thoughts about primates. Among her discoveries was that she realized chimpanzees have social hierarchies and can have violent tendencies, but also exhibit instances of benevolence, all of which are characteristics of humans and human society.
The parting message Goodall offered was one of hope and a call to action. After her work strictly with primates, Goodall began interacting with native people near the preserve where she was working. Her goal was to help them improve their own lives so that, when not worried about basic survival themselves, they could focus on protecting the natural resources around them. She started the program Roots & Shoots, which has now become largely a school-based environmental education program. Their mission is “to foster respect and compassion for all living things, to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs, and to inspire each individual to take action to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment” (Roots & Shoots). Children and adolescents are learning the importance of changing our mindsets and habits in order to slow, and hopefully reverse, global warming and its effects. Goodall encouraged each person in the audience to take some type of action toward protecting and renewing our environment, as one individual’s actions combined with millions of others will make a difference.
To watch a video of Dr. Goodall’s talk, go here:
For more info on Roots & Shoots: https://www.rootsandshoots.org/aboutus.
As the new semester begins, we’d like to take a moment to let everyone know about some exciting things that happened over the summer and a few upcoming events that everyone should put on their calendar!
Prof. Kathleen Davis received The National Endowment for the Humanities Next Generation PhD Planning Grant. This project will explore career and experiential learning possibilities for twenty-first century humanities PhD students.
We will be featuring more interviews and spotlights on the blog about this exciting program, so stay tuned! In the meantime, you can learn more about the project at:
Our own Michele Meek and Rachel Boccio started an amazing podcast called Careers in the Public Humanities. This podcast explores the broad range of positions and prospects open to humanities PhDs beyond the tenure track. It aims to encourage cross-disciplinary learning and an engagement in research that serves diverse literary and cultural publics. .
It is being continued by Catherine Winters and Ryan Engley. Check it out at: https://soundcloud.com/user-842420423
Oct. 26 (Thursday) 4:45-5:30
Historical Narratives: The Craft of Writing
Swan Hall 152, Hoffman Room
This discussion with historian, author, and former CFH director Marie Jenkins Schwartz and historical novelist Taylor Polites will focus on the joys and challenges of engaging with history when writing. Research is an essential part of writing any book set in the past. What approaches to research work, and when it is time to stop researching and to start writing? Both Schwartz and Polites will read excerpts from their latest books and explain how their approaches to research informed the stories they tell.
Sponsored by The Center for the Humanities
Oct. 27 (Friday) 4:00-5:30
Ocean State Writing Conference: Keynote by Masha Gessen
Gessen is a journalist and author of ten books of nonfiction including the national bestseller The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
The 2017 Northeast Modern Language Association meeting in Baltimore, MD offered many opportunities for members of the URI English Department to share their work and engage with other scholars from the northeast region. Participants included faculty, and students past and present. Our representatives presented on a wide variety of subjects from high school vampires to Shakespeare.
The URI English Graduate Students chaired and co-chaired 8 sessions on topics including Global Crime Fiction, Reading in Victorian Fiction, Collaborative Authorship, Globalized Romanticism and Turkish Literature. Third year PhD student and Graduate Faculty Liaison Jenna Guitar participated in a special session to mark the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her talk, “Buffy Summers: She Saved the World and Pedagogy a Lot,” examined the pedagogical legacy of Buffy as a forerunner of popular culture on the college classroom that has remained relevant twenty years after its initial airing. Fifth year PhD student Ashton Foley organized and presented on a panel representing her dissertation research on reading and readers in Victorian novels. The URI international community was represented by Graduate students Serap Hidir and Xinqiang Chang
URI alumna Nancy Caronia, who received her doctorate from the English program 2015, was honored as a recipient of the NeMLA Summer Research Fellowship. Caronia used the fellowship funding to work with Italian Diaspora Summer Seminar at the University of Calabria on her current research on Italian American communities and dime novels. Her poster session, titled “Transnational Passages: Italian American and Italian Women’s Literary Traditions” was showcased along with three other fellowship recipients in a special session at the conference.
Also of note was a reading by Jody Lisberger, URI Associate Professor in Creative Writing and author. Lisberger read from her piece “The Beast Down Under” as part of a panel on animal imagery in contemporary fiction. The session, titled “The Coyote in the Parking Lot: Writers Invoking Animals in an Increasingly Wild World” was sponsored by Kaya Press.
The Northeast Modern Language Association 2018 conference will be held in Pittsburgh April 12-15th. The conference theme is “Global Spaces, Local Landscapes and Imagined Worlds.” While the deadline for proposing a session has passed, abstracts are due Sept. 30th, 2017. You can submit your abstracts here: https://www.buffalo.edu/nemla/convention.html
The English Department joined the Center for the Humanities in its annual festival, held at URI on April 6th, which was dedicated to the topic of Public Humanities. The Festival was opened by Annu Palakunathu Matthew, director of the Center for the Humanities, who awarded the Student Excellence Award Winners 2017: undergraduate students Kristina Canton (History Department), Charles Santos (Philosophy Department), graduate student Michelle M. Drummey (History Department), and PhD student Beth Leonardo Silvia, from the English Department, who not only has two articles accepted for publication but also serves as Administrative Assistant to the Center for the Humanities.
Kathleen Davis, Professor of English at URI and director of the NEH Planning Grant “Humanities at Large,” introduced the topic of Public Humanities and the “culture of yes!”, and highlighted the importance of a productive dialogue between academia and the Public.
The panel discussion was moderated by Christina Bevilacqua, a cultural curator who currently serves as Conversationalist-in residence at Trinity Repertory Company. The three main panelists—who come from different experiences, background, and education—confronted and debated the idea of Public Humanities. Each panelist defined their own approach.
What is Humanities? That question opened the discussion, as Christina Bevilacqua highlighted the way practitioners go into the world of humanities. Interdisciplinarity seemed to be the thread that bound the intervention of the panelists Shereen Marisol Meraji, co-host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast focused on race and culture in America, Ry, Cordell–Assistant Professor of English and core founding faculty member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Network at Northeastern University, and Loren M. Spears, Tomaquag Museum Executive Director and URI alumni.
Cordell pointed out the importance of interdisciplinarity, and gave as an example the way computational and humanist method are combined in his work. Technology is present, Cordell stated, we use it. History and literature, or the history of literature may become a history of technology. In labs, students learn about codes. Technology has become a part of the history of humanities, as digital archive is replicating a traditional archive. Technology should be interrogated, and used to perpetuate culture. Social media put people in conversation and used to spread and reinforce messages of diversity and humanity.
Shereen Marisol Meraji, with her NPR podcast that discusses the idea of race in America, proves that humanists can become activists, and that technology can have a positive impact on society. Her podcast, in her own definition, “is an archive about race and identity in America.” It is a radio archive that collects and retells oral stories, providing a virtual but important space to raise questions about memories, stories, race, and background. These are “humanities” questions. How to give the invisible a voice? That is what the Humanities do. They make those stories public. That is one of the values of the Humanities.
Christina Bevilacqua moved the discussion to Digital Humanities and the relationship between history and technology. How to combine, then, archival work in 19th, 18th century history and literature, with technology?
Loren M. Spears jumped in the conversation. She illustrated how her work in Tomaquag Museum is using different types of media such as videos and podcast to enlarge the interested audience and involve more young people in the museum’s life, which is based on connections. Connections between communities and families. Between past and present. Archival research and digital archive. The humanists’ job, after all, is to tell stories. And the question is, how do we tell stories? How do we recollect them? How do we make them available for future generations? How to involve the community members, students, and the public, in the life of a museum?
Loren Spears shares her cultural knowledge and traditional arts with the Public through museum programs. A museum brings new knowledge and awareness about history and the history of the community.
English majors are in demand, but there is an existing stereotype about the uselessness of humanities. In her speech, Spears sounded encouraging and supportive towards the students and the humanists who are now going into the job market. Spears reported about one of her internships, a young student who was trained during her experience in the Tomaquag Museum to write grant proposals, share her knowledge with the public, and to make her skills crucial and necessary to the success of the museum’s projects.
The Public seems to ask the university system to engage in a conversation about the practical society’s needs. The Humanities are becoming the ideal bridge that makes the encounter between the academia and the outside world finally possible.
Photos of the event can be found here: http://web.uri.edu/humanities/
This week we are excited to share a guest post by Prof. Steve Mentz. Prof. Mentz teaches in the English Department at St. John’s University, working on Shakespeare, literary theory, and maritime literature and culture with a focus on the “environmental humanities.” He gave a talk entitled “Wet Globalization” at the Rumowicz Symposium and has graciously allowed us to cross-post his write-up of the event. You can find his original post on his website http://stevementz.com along with more information on Prof. Mentz, his interests, writings, and publications.
It may have been foolhardy of me to join an intense full-day symposium and workshop just three days after the madness of #shakeass17, but the gates of the wonder-world only open so often. Such a flood yesterday at URI!
Hosted by Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz Program on Literature and the Sea, the event brought together four scholars actively working in the oceanic humanities to discuss works in progress and the state of scholarly inquiry. The short takeway for me is that “oceanic humanities” covers a lot of water and lots of ground too. The precirculated papers and short talks were varied, brilliant, and inspiring. The day’s juxtaposition of a series of vexed terms, including “global,” “racial,” and “humanities,” emphasized that the tasks oceanic scholarship has set for itself, including thinking past or at an angle to national, religious, linguistic, or geographic collectivities, remain difficult and valuable. I was especially struck, as sometimes I am not in in-group conversations among theory-minded ecofolk, about the unsettling valences of the term “posthuman,” and why it’s necessary to interrogate that category as we employ it.
Taking our speakers briefly in the reverse of the alphabetical order in which we spoke at the end of the day —
Ketaki Pant, a post-doc at Brown who’s heading off for a job in sunny SoCal next year, presented brilliant work on merchant families from Gujarat whose travels and business connections spanned the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa through the Arabian peninsula and the subcontinent. Exploring multilingual poetic compositions that she translated herself, she unfurled a terraqueous network of distance and connection, finances and emotional poignancy.
I spoke about “wet globalization,” a term that also appears in Shipwreck Modernity. I’m planning to use the phrase in my introduction to The Cultural History of the Sea in the Renaissance, a volume of essays I’m editing for Bloomsbury (due out in 2021!). The publishers will support illustrations, so I’ve been thinking about resonant objects and images through which to explore the inexhaustible waters. I came away from yesterday’s event convinced that I need to keep exploring the tension between “wet” experience and early modern “globalization” as both historical event and intellectual challenge.
(Side-note: when teaching a small slice of the work of the Africana studies scholar Kevin Quashie last week I came across a great new motto for what scholarship aims to do: “There is nothing promised by work other than more work.” We want generative, creative, world-opening scholarship; we hope for the changes that education creates and perhaps also for political progress, but scholarly labor is seldom about neat “solutions” or about finishing coversations.)
Jason Chang from UConn spoke about “sea coolies,” Chinese sailors who ran afoul of the U.S. Exclusion act of 1882, but their essentially maritime nature — they were not immigrants, just sailors on leave who got entangled with the authorities — seems to have convinced American courts that these were men whose “home is the sea,” which made them exempt from, or differently subject to, legal prohibitions. It’s a great project about oceanic identity and mobility in the Pacific during the emerging American imperium. I look forward to seeing more of it!
Monique Allewaert from Wisconsin-Madison opened up our talks with a preview of a new project, “American Atlantis,” which takes the sea’s third dimension — depth — as a key to its meanings. The new project about 18c rearticulations of Atlantis looks quite amazing, as does the essay she circulated on the Haitian maroon Francois Makandal. The Makandal material derived an alternative interpretive practice that used Charles Pierce’s notion of “indexical signs” to reconsider Makandal’s fetish objects, as well as his life, death, and afterlife. She also connected these indexical reading strategies — stunningly — to the poetics of Emily Dickinson.
These are all great, original projects. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to them and their authors and have had a chance to think intensely about them through the invitation of the Rumowicz program. At the risk of generalizing too quickly, I’ll offer two meta-ish points around which my thoughts are swirling today:
- Racial justice and posthuman circulations: These projects each in distinctive ways reemphasize the scalar, ethical, and conceptual tension between the human and the ocean. I sometimes think about this issue through the visual image of a swimmer’s body in a vast sea, but the ethical urgency of racial and social justice on human and political scales also strains against the rush to ocean-ize. I recognize that tidal pull as a risk in the practice of oceanic literary studies, very much including my own work. Monique’s effort to bring together materialisms both old (Marxist) and new (Latour-ish) seems a compelling response to this challenge. She reminds us, in terms that recall Quashie’s motto, that newer theoretical methods never quite displace, only supplement, old and intransigent questions of politics and power.
- Plurality of expertise: Whenever I present with historians, I’m always amazed by archival breadth and erudition. Ketaki’s linguistic acumen and Jason’s legal historiography showed me ways to engage archives that are quite alien to someone like me who spends a lot of classroom and writing time with Shakespeare’s plays. Our desire to create and support intellectual plurality — in materials, methods, conclusions, and projects — will require consciously expanding our networks of scholarship and collaboration. That’s why I’m glad to have worked intensely for ten hours yesterday at an oceanic humanities conference while still feeling sleep-deprived after a weekend with the Shakespeareans!
Finally, some quick OED-noodling that may be useful eventually (with the reminder not to trust the OED’s dates too much!):
Human – as distinct from either animals or God, from around 1450
Humane – variation on “human” that emphasizes kindness, from around 1500
humane letters – from around 1610
humanist – description of an academic working in classical languages, from around 1589 (Harington, Bacon, etc)
“the human” – from 1840
posthuman – from mid-20c sci fi, including H.G. Wells’s “posthuman monsters” in 1940
Thanks again to Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz program for hosting this great event!
Dr. Maury Klein, a URI professor of history emeritus, offered his insights into to the world of historical research through archives and interviews this March at the CI. The event had a wonderful turnout with people from across disciplines at URI—from oceanography researchers to land trust stewards, English doctoral students to urban park managers—all coming out to learn how Dr. Klein makes the most of historical research and the stories it offers which can’t be found online, at the library, or in the field. Though Dr. Klein’s research is not within a scientific field, there were many takeaways for those looking to communicate science effectively to a broad public audience.
Histories Mysteries and Science’s Secrets – Disciplinary Detective Work
He opened by addressing the ways in which scientific and historical research are not so different—both seek answers like detectives in a mystery story—one in the material present, and the other in the recorded past. Though he has researched scientists, such as James Van Allen, he does not do research in labs or in the field. Or, rather, his lab and field lay elsewhere—in the interview room, library, internet, or archive—and most curiously—in the unsuspecting ways these sites overlap to lead him to obscure holdings. He has found key information that allowed him to tell the story of important histories in overlooked bookshelves of family cabins, centuries old train station warehouse dumpsters, or even as a result of a phone call from a stranger.
Nine Rules of Effective Research Learned from Five Decades of Successful Practice
Dr. Klein notes that research, regardless of discipline, shares many of the same characteristics. Keeping these characteristics in mind explicitly is his rule for producing the effective research that led to his nineteen books and numerous essays.
- Patience – the time and effort it takes to comb through all the sources you will need to view for a research project can be overwhelming. This can even seem like more than you can manage. His advice is, rather than think about the whole, to just continue to do the next thing.
- Persistence – even though you can only ever do the next thing, you must continue this effort even if the end is not in sight.
- Imagination – research is directed by the questions you ask. You don’t know what you don’t know, yet, with research you can’t find an answer without a question. You need to be able to imagine a question that reaches beyond what you already know.
- Proportion – knowing when, where, and how to cut off your research is key. Knowing how to limit the scope of a project is a first step towards this despite the imaginative leap that begins an endeavor. It is important to keep in mind that if you never finish the research, especially with something as large as a book or dissertation, it won’t matter since no one will ever see it. You need to be able to decide when to stop looking and start telling the story.
- Clear focus – it is difficult to read things and only look for what you are looking for, but you need to be able to do this or no amount of persistence and patience will turn your research into a story you can tell.
- Making Connections – the core of education is making connections between things you never saw before encountering them in close proximity. He shares how, as an undergraduate he had a common aha moment when he started to see that all the classes are connected despite their different ways of seeing the same things. It is the same at the research level. Things that seem inconsequential end up being connected, and even changing the direction of what you are doing entirely.
- Organization – his method for organizing his sources and notes appears to be almost archival in itself. The more stuff you have the more organized you need to be. You never want to be looking for something endlessly just in order to finish a sentence when you are finally telling the story.
- Style – style is about not just writing but finding a way for how you want to do the research and story drafting itself. This is a way of navigating stuff. The same system won’t work for everyone but everyone needs a system, even if it is of their own making.
- Judgment – you are constantly making decisions as a researcher in small ways—about where you will look, what you will address next, what is important, what the connections are. You also need to decide what will the source allow you to do, what the source tells you, how does it help you answer your question, what is the data telling you? It will not be self-evident. The more contextual and background information you know before you start, the easier it is to decide.
Though all this may sound overwhelming itself, he adds that research is fun if you like doing it. He always used to tell students who would ask: what can you do with a history major? – if you chose not to find a career doing what you like to do you’ll end up a miserable rich person. The research you do comes down to the size of what you are trying to accomplish – small projects will involve more targeted searching, and large ones comprehensive immersions – regardless of size however, you can’t control where the material takes you, and you must be willing to follow it to find the story you need to tell.
Plumbing the Archives
Here are Dr. Klein’s practical tips on doing archival work:
-Don’t take notes. You don’t know what you will need later. Always photocopy, scan, or photograph sources when possible.
-Don’t just look for primary sources, archival holdings of researchers materials also sometimes contain original documents from their own archival work, much of which may have become lost or is now even harder to access.
-You must do the initial leg work to find out where the holdings are which you need to access; this is not as straight forward as typical library searches.
-Go look at things yourself and don’t have someone do your research for you, they will make decisions for you and since you don’t know exactly what you are looking for until you find it, this can lead to missed opportunities.
-You need your own system of determining what is of interest.
-Companies that are around for a long time often hold on to centuries of records comprehensively. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.
-Large and/or important families often hang on to archival items until the death of the last surviving kin, often things get lost. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.
-A source on one thing will often convey information about something else; for example, he once found 19th century railway engineer notebooks that contain much flora and fauna notes about surrounding landscape which they were laying track through.
-Periodicals are a great source because they don’t know what is coming next so they are good for giving you the tone of the day.
Dr. Klein notes that, often, there isn’t always enough direct primary source material to make a source driven story, so you may need to branch out. Interviews are both a good way to do this, and to find additional sources. He suggests asking people for introductions to other people you can interview to help you with your story, this often leads back to archival holdings you would not otherwise have found. Inventory who you know. Keep track of who they know. Ask around.
When there is a generation of people outgoing you can often convince a company or organization to debrief the outgoing staff and get a good story that would otherwise have been lost, or good leads. Hence, interviews often lead to unforeseen research directions, and will help you bring your story to life later, connecting it to real and present world. With contemporary history, interviews are more important often than the archival documents. Finally, and most importantly, Klein urges researchers to always record an interview, and back it up ASAP. If you do lose it, however, you can call back and say: I had some follow up questions. Use this call to clarify key information minimizing what is lost.
Telling the Story
For Dr. Klein, how he organizes his notes and sources on archival documents and interviews corresponds to how he will write the story they tell. He picks what stories to tell several ways. Sometimes it is assigned to him – an opportunity presents itself from a publisher, educational organization, or even law firm, and he accepts it if it intrigues him. Other times he decides on his own to pursue something. In this case it is often something he wants to know more about – and what better way. The point is that you never know where a topic will come from. You never know where your research is going to take you or what further avenues it is going to open up for you. It used to always be important to answer the phone as the vanguard of career success, now it is never ignore an email, explore every opportunity. Klein explains one often blunders into things. He seems to say, however, that in order to do so, you must already be immersing yourself in an area, rather than researching narrowly or transactionally. You need to carve out the space to do exploratory work and the story will usually reveal itself. When thinking about how to tell a story – how to present information so that it does not overwhelm a reader, Dr. Klein explains the way you communicate will depend on how you approach the research. For him, this leads to a sort of condensed style. He likes to say as much as he can in as small a space as possible, this leads to succinct and dense sentences and necessitates using active verbs, the opposite of, say, a Victorian style.
Most importantly, you need to be able to see the scaffolding of the story the data will tell. When a story has not been told yet it isn’t usually because the facts aren’t known, so much as it is that researchers haven’t yet found a way to scaffold the information. The scaffolding – or organizational structure – emerges during the research stage, which you make explicit in your telling. When revising his stories, he follows the same style of condensation, rather than altering the scaffolding and reorganizing or removing whole sections. He goes page by page reducing each by an equal percentage. All of this – research and writing – are more achievable if you have regular work habits – a routine that you follow. For him, this is writing seven days a week, every morning at least. He doesn’t take vacations because his work is fun. Regarding the presentation of quantitative data, he suggests always writing at a level comprehensible by a non-technical reader. He also suggests not so much explicating the data as providing it alongside a qualitative narrative which emerged from it.
This past fall, Amy Foley went on the job market for the first time. She was kind enough to answer some questions about the process and give some advice to those of us who will one day have to go through the same process. Her interview is below.
First of all, congratulations on finishing your PhD in four years! That’s truly impressive. This last fall, you went on the job market for the first time, and, as something many of us are looking forward to and also dreading, thanks for letting us pick your brain!
1. Given the state of higher education and the cuts to permanent positions happening throughout the academy, how did you feel about the number of tenure track/full time jobs that were available in your area? Were there as many as you expected? Fewer? Were you forced to stretch your area to cover certain job calls?
This guest post is by Christopher Cooney, a junior at URI. He began his career as a jazz percussion major but is now pursuing an English degree. He enjoys reading, lifting, and playing and listening to music of all kinds.
Professor Christy Clark-Pujara’s lecture on slavery in Rhode Island was both informative and eye-opening. I was not aware that the economy of Rhode Island was so reliant on the business of slavery, or for so long. Discussions of slavery often put great emphasis on the southern slave states, while the north is seen as a place where slavery was not quite as prominent. As I learned, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, Rhode Island was one of the first colonies to become involved in the slave trade, and its economy quickly became reliant upon it. Interestingly, one of the main functions of northern slavery was to sustain southern slaves, manufacturing and exporting clothing and rum. Having lived here all my life, placing all of this within the context of Rhode Island made it all the more unsettling. The vast majority of slave ships in Rhode Island left from either Newport or Providence, two places I frequent often. Another unsettling fact is this: during the peak of the slave trade, 25% of the Newport population was enslaved.
As enlightening as all this information was, Clark-Pujara made it clear that what she wanted to get across is how the business of slavery shaped the experience of slavery. To me, this is far more captivating. Facts are facts, but there’s little point in discussing them for their own sake. Facts are like compact representations. The real question is: what do they mean? What’s more important are the slaves themselves, their experience, and how these realities affected their lives. That is, in one massive way: the reliance of Rhode Island economy on slave labor effectively stalled emancipation. The well-being of slaves was held second to the well-being of the economy, as it would have been destroyed had slave labor been removed all at once. Despite this, slaves found ways to resist, rebel and stand up against the oppression.
What Clark-Pujara seemed to stress most of all was the slaves’ resilience. They did not simply lie down and accept their fate. They instead invested in themselves by establishing mutual aid societies for the welfare of their communities, and “attached these institutions to national institutions in pursuit of equality,” Clark-Pujara explained. She also emphasized the fact that slavery was essentially broken down by the slaves themselves through their actions, not simply as a result of the Gradual Emancipation Laws, illustrating their fortitude in the face of oppression. She expressed this in an extremely concise and effective way, saying that the gradual emancipation laws “reflected” the actions of the slaves rather than “catalyzed” their eventual freedom. The Gradual Emancipation Laws alone did not necessarily free the slaves; they were already in the process of freeing themselves.
This lecture was not just a stream of facts and information, it was a look at the history of people who took their lives into their own hands, and who refused to submit to the oppression thrust upon them. Clark-Pujara emphasized the importance of this particular history, and of historical knowledge in general. The slaves in Rhode Island (or anywhere else, for that matter) were not merely passive participants in their oppression; they took control and fought for freedom until it was theirs. Clark-Pujara talked about how important it is that this information persists through the years. It reminds us of how important it is to maintain autonomy, to stay conscious, and to remain vigilant in the face of injustice.
To me, this talk highlighted the importance of investigating common misconceptions within our sphere of “general knowledge.” It speaks to me even more as I become increasingly aware of the grand narratives that inhabit our lives. Today, there is an abundance of information on every subject you could possibly imagine. And often, misconceptions cut through, for example, in this case, the misconception that slavery was not prominent in the north, or that all slaves were granted freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th amendment. Thus, it is imperative that one thinks critically about the information that is being handed to them. Maybe the information that is easiest to come by isn’t the most accurate or thought through. Sometimes you need to go out of your way to find the truth. That’s precisely what happened to me in attending this lecture, as I learned things I may never have learned otherwise. And again, it’s not about the facts or the numbers, necessarily, however interesting they may be. It’s about the reality behind them. It’s about staying conscious; of history, and what it can teach us about the world we live in today.
Clark-Pujara’s 2016 book, “Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island”, goes further in depth on the subjects she discussed in her lecture. For anyone interested in learning more, here is a fantastic opportunity to educate yourself on this crucial history.
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.