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Friday, October 31, 2014

October 31, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Scream Series

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On the benefits and the drawbacks of metafiction, in any genre.
In this post on E.L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, and the Rosenbergs, I highlighted postmodern theorist Linda Hutcheon’s concept of “historiographic metafiction,” a genre of creative art that blurs the boundaries not only between fact and fiction (as do the found footage works I discussed in Tuesday’s post) but also between art and reality, the work and its audience. The characters and creators of such works step back to examine and address themselves, the works as creative works, and their audiences, among other layers to their metafictional engagements. In the mid-1990s, master filmmaker Wes Craven and his collaborators introduced such metafictional qualities into the horror genre: first in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and then, far more successfully and influentially, in Scream (1996) and its multiple sequels.
Scream has plenty of qualities of a straightforward slasher film, as the justifiably famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore amply demonstrates. But the discussion of “scary movies” integral to that opening scene is extended and amplified in the movie proper, which features a cast of characters who have been seemingly raised on such films and who engage in multiple (even constant) metafictional conversations about the genre’s “rules,” conventions, and expectations. The metafiction unquestionably works, elevating what would otherwise have been a largely unremarkable horror movie into an analytical commentary on its own existence, the legacy of which it is part, and the guilty pleasures it and its ilk offer (and make no mistake, Scream remains scary and gory despite, if not indeed through, these metafictional qualities).
As with any genre and form, metafiction has its potential drawbacks and downsides, however, and as the Scream series evolved it reflected quite clearly one of those drawbacks: the tendency of such self-referential commentaries to multiply to the point where they’re chasing their own tails more than either analyzing or entertaining an audience. So, for example, Scream 2 features both a movie version of the first film’s events and a killer hoping to get caught so he could be the star of a televised trial; Scream 3 is set in Hollywood, on the film set of the third movie version of the prior films’ events; and so on. When metafiction amplifies both the effectiveness and the meanings of the text that features it, it can be an important quality of 21st century works of art; when it becomes an end unto itself, it can reflect our most self-aware and snarky sides. Or, to quote a film that was terrifying in entirely distinct ways, “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
October Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you'd highlight?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October 30, 2014: AmericanSpooking: Those Scary Foreigners

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On the horrifying xenophobia at the heart of two recent hit films.
It’s hard to argue with success, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) and Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008) are by many measures two of the most successful films of the last decade. Hostel made more than $80 million worldwide (on a budget of $4.5 million), led to a sequel two years later, and contributed significantly to the rise of an entirely new sub-gerne (the horror sub-genre generally known as “torture porn”). Taken cost a lot more to make (budget of $25 million) but also made a lot more at the box office (worldwide gross of over $225 million), has its own sequel coming out later this year, and fundamentally changed the career arc and general perception of its star Liam Neeson. Neither film was aiming for any Oscars or to make the Sight and Sound list, but clearly both did what they were trying to do well enough to please their audiences and hit all the notes in their generic (in the literal sense) formulas.
What the two films were trying to do is, of course, a matter of interpretation and debate (although Eli Roth is more than happy to tell us his take on what his film is about); moreover, they’re clearly very different from each other, in genre and goal and many other ways, and I don’t intend to conflate them in this post. Yet they both share an uncannily similar basic plot: naïve and fun-loving young American travelers are abducted and tortured by evil European captors, against whom the travelers themselves (in Hostel) or the traveler’s badass special forces type Dad (in Taken; young Maggie Grace apparently gets to fight some of her own fights against additional Euro-types in the sequel) have to fight in order to escape. While it’s possible to argue that the travelers in Roth’s film help bring on their own torture as a result of their chauvanistic attitudes toward European women (in the sequel Roth made his protagonists young women, and much more explicitly innocent ones at that), there’s no question that the true forces of evil in each film are distinctly European. Moreover, since all of the young travelers are explicitly constructed as tourists, hoping to experience the different world of Europe, the films can’t help but seem like cautionary tales about that world’s dangerous and destructive underbelly.
It’s that last point which I’d really want to emphasize here. After all, bad guys in both horror and action films can and do come from everywhere, and that doesn’t necessarily serve as a blanket indictment of those places; if anything, I would argue that the multi-national and multi-ethnic villainy of (for example) James Bond films is a thematic strength, making clear that evil can and will be found everywhere.  Yet both Hostel and Taken are precisely about, or at least originate with, the relationship between American travelers and Europeans, about the naïve ideals of cultural tourism and about creating plots that depend on very frightening and torturous realities within these foreign worlds. “Don’t travel to Europe, young people,” they seem to argue; and if you do, well, be prepared either to kill a ton of ugly Europeans (or have your Daddy do it) or to be killed by them. Not exactly the travel narrative I’d argue for, and indeed a terrifying contribution to our 21st century American worldview.
Last AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you’d highlight?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Birds and Psycho

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On defamiliarization, horror, and prejudice.
In his essay “Art as Technique,” pioneering Russian Formalist theorist Viktor Shklovsky (whom I never imagined I’d be discussing in this space, but I am an AmericanStudier and I contain multitudes) developed the concept of “defamiliarization”: the idea that one of art’s central goals and effects is to make us look at the world around us, and particularly those things with which we are most familiar, in a new and unfamiliar light. Such defamiliarizations can have many different tones and effects, including positive ones like opening our minds and inspiring new ideas; but it seems to me that one of their chief consistent effects is likely to be horror. After all, the familiar is often (even usually) the comfortable, and to be jarred out of that familiarity and comfort, whatever the long-term necessity and benefits, can be a terrifying thing.
Steven King, by all accounts one of the modern masters of horror, seems well aware of that fact, having turned such familiar objects as dogs and cars into sources of primal terror. And Alfred Hitchcock, one of the 20th century’s such masters (and, yes, a Brit, but he set many of his films, including today’s two, in the U.S.), certainly was as well, as illustrated by one of his silliest yet also one of his scariest films: The Birds (1963). The film’s heroine Melanie, played by the inimitable Tippi Hedren, asks her boyfriend, “Mitch, do seagulls normally act this way?”; it’s a ridiculous line, but at the same time it nicely sums up the source of the film’s horror: we’re always surrounded by birds of one kind or another, and there are few ideas more terrifying than the notion that such accepted and generally harmless parts of our world could suddenly become constant threats. I defy anyone to watch Hitchcock’s film and not look askance at the next pigeon you come across.
The Birds was Hitchcock’s second consecutive horror film, following on what was then and likely remains his biggest hit: Psycho (1960). Psycho relies for its horror more on a combination of slow-burn suspense and surprising and very famous jump scares than defamiliarization, with one crucial exception: the ending, and its relevation of the killer’s true identity and motivations. If that ending is meant to be the most terrifying part of all—and the film’s marketing campaign suggested as much very clearly—then there’s no way around it: the defamiliarization of gender and sexuality that accompanies the revelation of Norman Bates’ cross-dressing is presented as something fundamentally frightening, not only connected to Norman’s murderous ways but indeed the titular psychosis that produced them. That is, while those murderous birds are clearly deviating from their familiar behaviors, I would argue that Bates is presented as deviant in his normal behaviors—and that his gender and sexual deviancy represents, again, the film’s culminating and most shocking, and thus troubling and prejudiced, horror.
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you'd highlight?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October 28, 2014: AmericanSpooking: Found Footage Films

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On the longstanding appeal, and the limits, of faux-realism.
In this very early post on Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), I noted how interestingly Irving’s book foreshadows (in form, although clearly not in genre or tone) early 21st century found footage texts such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Mark Danielewksi’s House of Leaves (2000). There are obviously just universal and longstanding appeals of such works, among which I would include the possibility that we are encountering something genuine (always a challenge to find anywhere, including in creative art), the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction (and the resulting discomfort, in the most provocative sense of the term, that such blurring produces), and the undeniable thrill of following along in the processes of making and finding such texts (ie, of putting ourselves in the shoes of both those who filmed and those who “found” Blair Witch’s footage, of both House’s creators and its initial readers, and so on).
If found footage has been an artistic element for centuries, though, it has nonetheless reached new levels of popularity and ubiquity in recent years. In film alone we have seen found footage monster movies, found footage superhero films, found footage alien invasion dramas, and, most consistently and most relevantly for this week’s series, the exploding genre of found footage horror films. The latter category includes, to name only a fraction of the entrants (and only some of those that have thus far spawned sequels), the Paranormal Activity series, the [Rec] series, the Grave Encounters series, and the Last Exorcism series. Each of those series fits into a different sub-genre or niche within the horror genre, but all rely on the same found footage trope, and thus all to my mind tap into some of those same aforementioned appeals. (With, perhaps, the added bonus of being able to yell at stupid horror movie characters whom we can imagine are actual people.)
When it’s done well, as I would argue it most definitely was in Blair Witch, found footage undoubtedly and potently taps into all those appealing qualities. But I think it has a significant limitation, and not just that it’s become far too frequently used (and certainly not the blurring of fact and fiction, for which I’m entirely on board). To me, the central problem with found footage works of art is that they too often tend, by design, to eschew artistic choices and complexity—after all, their amateur filmmaker characters likely weren’t concerned with such artistic elements (especially not once the crap started hitting the fan), and so their actual filmmakers often seem not to be either. But while we might well look to works of art for the kinds of appealing elements that found footage features, we also look to them to be artistic, to be carefully and effectively designed as something more than—or at least something other than—the reality with which we’re surrounded. Great found footage works, that is, help us escape into their artistic alternate reality—they don’t simply remind us of our own.
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spooky films (or other texts) you’d highlight?

Monday, October 27, 2014

October 27, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Saw Series

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On different visions of morality in horror films, and whether they matter.
There’s an easy and somewhat stereotypical, although certainly not inaccurate, way to read the morality or lessons of horror films: to emphasize how they seem consistently to punish characters, and especially female characters, who are too sexually promiscuous, drink or do drugs, or otherwise act in immoral ways; and how they seem to reward characters, especially the “final girl,” who are not only tough and resourceful but also virgins and otherwise resistant to such immoral temptations. Film scholar Carol Clover reiterates but also to a degree challenges those interpretations in her seminal Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992); Clover agrees with arguments about the “final girl,” but makes the case that by asking viewers to identify with this female character, the films are indeed pushing our communal perspectives on gender in provocative new directions.
It’s important to add, however, that whether conventional slasher films are reiterating or challenging traditional moralities, they’re certainly not prioritizing those moral purposes—jump scares and gory deaths are much higher on the list of priorities. On the other hand, one of the most successful and influential horror series of the last decade, the Saw films (which began with 2004’s Saw and continued annually through the 7th and supposedly final installment, 2010’s Saw 3D), has made its world’s and killer’s moral philosophy and objectives central to the series’ purposes. The films’ villain, John Kramer, generally known only as Jigsaw, has been called a “deranged philanthropist,” as his puzzles and tortures are generally designed to test, alter, and ultimately strengthen his victims’ identities and beliefs (if they survive, of course). That is, not only is it possible to find moral messages in both the films and which characters do and do not survive in them, but deciphering and living up to that morality becomes the means by which those characters can survive their tortures.
That’s the films and the characters—but what about the audience? It’s long been assumed (and I would generally agree) that audiences look to horror films not only to be scared (a universal human desire) but also to enjoy the unique and gory deaths (a more troubling argument, but again one I would generally support). So it’d be fair, and important, to ask whether that remains the case for Saw’s audiences—whether, that is, they’re in fact rooting not for characters to survive and grow, but instead to fail and be killed in Jigsaw’s inventive ways. And if most or even many of them are, whether that response—and its contribution to the series’ popularity and box office success and thus its ability to continue across seven years and movies—renders the films’ sense of morality irrelevant (it would certainly make it ironic at the very least). To put it bluntly: it seems to make a big difference whether we see the Saw films as distinct in the inventiveness of their tortures/deaths or the morality of their killer. As with any post and topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Other spooky films (or scary texts in other genres) you'd highlight?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

October 25-26, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: My Fellow Tweeters

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I followed it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. For this weekend post, I wanted to make sure to acknowledge my fellow De Lange Tweeters.]
A few words on each of my four fellow Fellows, all of whom I got to meet (in person, that is!) for the first time at the conference:
1)      Dr. Kelly Baker: Kelly has a PhD in Religion from Florida State, and has become one of our foremost independent writers on and scholars of religion in American society, history, and popular culture. Her first two books, the first on the KKK in the early 20th century and the second on zombies in American culture, exemplify this impressive range.
2)      Dr. Jason Jones: While a ground-breaking Victorianist at Central Connecticut State University, Jason helped launch the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, one of the preeminent spaces for academic writing and conversation (on- and offline). He has recently moved to Trinity College, where he is the Director of Educational Technology, and where he continues to write all over the web.
3)      Dr. Dorothy Kim: Dorothy is an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, where she works on medieval literature and the digital humanities. Yet in true 21st century style, Dorothy combines that historical and literary focus with a consistent and deep engagement with contemporary cultural social, cultural, and political issues and conversations.
4)      Dr. Liana Silva: Liana is one of our most talented and significant freelance writers and editors, having published and worked extensively in the fields of gender studies, cultural studies, musicology, and academic labor studies, among many others. She currently works as Editor in Chief for Women in Higher Ed, and as usual has a ton of great stuff in the works.
A very impressive group, and I was honored to share this role with them. Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Any other follow ups to the conference and/or the week’s posts?

PPS. Unrelated to the week’s series, but I wanted to remind any Canadian readers that I’ll be giving a talk on the American and Canadian Chinese Exclusion Acts on Monday afternoon at 2:30 at the University of Toronto’s Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library. I’d love to see you there!

Friday, October 24, 2014

October 24, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Backchannel Conversations?

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On two ways to see our Twitter conversations, and then a third level.
As the conference went along, an interesting running joke developed: that the Twitter feed was “unhappy with X”; that presenter Y was worried that he/she was “not doing well on Twitter” (and/or was reassured by another presenter that “Twitter likes you”); that, in short, the “backchannel conversations” (as such conference Twitter feeds and other electronic responses to in-person presentations have come to be known) offered consistent counter-arguments and challenges to the presentations and presenters. I think that’s an accurate assessment of much of the Twitter response, as provided both by us Social Media Fellows and by others (at the conference and elsewhere) weighing in, and that thread culminated in a very specific moment during the conference’s final panel, which featured six of the prior keynote speakers and moderators: I raised issues of contingent faculty, faculty with heavy teaching loads (such as my own 4/4), and related questions of academic labor; and when the panelists acknowledged but offered no thoughts on those issues, the Twitter feed more or less exploded.
As it did so, however, another conference attendee and frequent Tweeter, Dr. Derek Bruff (director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching), rose and asked the question again; after Bruff’s follow up (which, to be fair to the panel, was more of a question than my own series of statements), most of the panel did respond, and did so with some interesting perspectives to be sure. Moreover, I’m not sure that my phrasing in that prior sentence was quite right—it’s perhaps more accurate to say that because the Twitter feed erupted, Bruff raised the question a second time (at the very least, he was engaging with his fellow Tweeters while waiting in line to ask his question), and thus that in a key way the panel conversation proceeded as a result of, not just in response to but literally because of, the Twitter conversation. And if we see the conversation as unfolding in that way, it casts a different light on the running jokes about the Twitter feed—which, seen in this light, offered a humorous but clear and striking recognition of the way in which the Twitter conversations were contributing to the in-person ones (as well as vice versa, which is the more obvious direction).
I would argue that both of these perspectives—the Twitter feed as backchannel challenge to the presentations; the feed and presentations as codependent conversations—have validity and value. But I would also take a step back and make one more connection. The Twitter conversations included not only us Social Media Fellows and many other conference attendees, but also a number of colleagues around the country and world; some of these colleagues commented throughout the conference, others added their voices at particular moments, and (I’m quite sure) others never Tweeted but followed the hashtag and conversations nonetheless. Virtually all of the conference’s presenters highlighted the role that technology and online spaces/communities will play in the future of higher education, not (as I noted in Wednesday’s post) as an alternative to traditional in-person institutions, but rather as a complementary part of those institutions. And in every way, the presence, role, and relationship of our conference Twitter feed helped model the complexity, challenge, and value of such in-person and online hybridity.
Special post on my fellow Social Media Fellows this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

PPS. For the perspective of one of my co-Social Media Fellows, Dr. Jason Jones, on many of these same questions, see this ProfHacker post of his.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

October 23, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Pedagogy Sessions

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On my specific and broader takeaways from the conference’s wonderful breakout sessions.
While the conference’s keynote addresses, on which my last two posts have focused, generally engaged with sweeping issues related to the future of higher education, the complementary breakout sessions did something very distinct and much more immediately applicable: highlighted pedagogical ideas and strategies, and presented in-depth examinations of why and how educators can make them part of their own teaching and courses. I had the chance to hear and learn from Music Professor Karim Al-Zand on an individualized critique model of feedback-giving, from English Professor J. Dennis Huston on how he works to engage each and every student in his course discussions, and from Communications Professors Tracy Volz and Jennifer Wilson on strategies for teaching speech and communication. I took valuable lessons away from each presentation, but by far the most eye-opening of those I attended was offered by Rice CTE Director and conference organizer Joshua Eyler.
Eyler’s session focused on the subject of his current book project: “The Science of Learning and Why It Matters.” We humanities types (Eyler was a medievalist before he moved into his current gig) love to throw around the term “science” far too loosely, but that’s not the case with Eyler’s work; he means it, and discussed what such disciplines as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, human development, and evolutionary biology/biological anthropology can help us understand about how we learn and what that might mean for our teaching practices and strategies. Among many other topics about which I learned a great deal from Eyler’s talk, he got me thinking about neuroplasticity (the way the brain changes when we learn things); the role of curiosity and play in human development, and how our teaching practices can tap into them; and the connection of gestures to language and learning, and how we can work to maximize those relationships. He highlighted and engaged with relevant research, noted controversies and limitations, and even featured cute pictures of his daughter—all while guiding us through a number of broad and complex topics.
In the question and answer period, I asked Eyler to expand a bit on one of his final points: that fuller engagement with these ideas could help produce higher ed reforms. His main answer was simple but vital: that we could, and need to, do a much better job putting this kind of research and information in front of teachers. And indeed, I would say the same about all these pedagogical breakout sessions, both specifically and generally: that the more we teachers share such ideas and issues, the stronger and more successful our work will be, collectively as well as individually. Partly that’s about preparing future teachers for their careers in the field, as is the overt goal of the Cross-Sector Partnership initiative here in Massachusetts. But honestly, we current teachers need those conversations just as much, and the more we make such engagement a shared, supported, and incentivized part of our work (rather than, as often happens with Centers for Teaching, an opportunity offered to those self-selected faculty who choose to pursue it), the stronger our collective efforts will be.
Last follow up tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

October 22, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Keynote Speakers

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On three provocative questions raised by the conference’s keynote addresses (not including Ruth Simmons’, about which I blogged yesterday). To be clear, I don’t have any answers to any of today’s questions, but I wanted to make sure to highlight them here, so we can all continue to think about them!
1)      What we can learn from MOOCs?: All of Tuesday’s keynotes (by Anant Agarwal, Kevin Guthrie, Daphne Koller, and David Pritchard) focused on one or another aspect of MOOCs, the open-access online courses that have become such a central part of 21st century higher education. I’ll admit that I have considered MOOCs entirely as an alternative to, and thus competition for, traditional universities. But all of these speakers argued for versions of the opposite, that instead we can and must learn from MOOCs, find ways to make some of their work part of ours, bridge the gap between these two modes. If you’ve taken or taught a MOOC, and/or otherwise have any thoughts on whether and how we might connect these modes, I’d love to hear them!
2)      How do administrations and faculties best work together?: Many of our speakers were current or former university presidents: José Antonio Bowen, William Bowen, Nancy Cantor, George Rupp, and Ruth Simmons. So it’s probably no surprise that a frequent topic was shared governance, and more specifically the challenges that such governance (especially as it often plays out) seems to present to changing, reforming, and improving universities. It’s fair to say that all of the speakers called upon faculty to accept changes to such models in one way or another, although with greatly varied emphases (William Bowen’s the most overtly critical of faculty inaction and intransigence, for example). I understand that position, but would also emphasize the need for administrations to be equally willing to accept changes and new options. What do you think?
3)      How do we change external perceptions of higher ed?: The first two questions are about internal conversations, in one way or another; but I think it’s fair to say, as many of our speakers did (especially Nancy Cantor in her Monday lunch address), that addressing increasingly negative external perceptions of higher ed (especially its costs, but also its separation from the rest of society and other related issues) presents at least as vital a challenge for the universities of tomorrow. Cantor focuses specifically on building fuller connections to and relationships with local communities, which is an ongoing goal and passion of mine as well. But there’s no one or right answer for how we impact these perceptions and narratives, I don’t think. So I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, as with all these questions!
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 21, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: Ruth Simmons

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On two vital conference contributions from the most inspiring keynote speaker.
As I’ll note in tomorrow’s post, each of the conference’s speakers offered provocative contributions to our ongoing conversations; but one presentation definitely stood out, to me and it seemed to many of the attendees: Thursday’s pre-lunch keynote address by Dr. Ruth Simmons. I’ll admit that my initial knowledge of Simmons was based mostly on one problematic fact: that during her long and successful tenure as President of Brown University, she vocally opposed the efforts of Brown’s graduate students to unionize. While it’s certainly important not to forget those kinds of labor issues and realities—as the conference speakers too often did, on which more later this week—Simmons is of course defined by much more than that fact; and in her keynote address, she used a couple other complex aspects of her life and story to add crucial contributions to our conversations.
For one thing, Simmons connected the conference to our Houston setting in potent and provocative ways. Like most elite private universities, Rice exists in many ways separate from the city in which it is located, or at least it is easy to perceive the two settings as separate. Yet as Simmons talked about her experiences growing up in and then subsequently returning to Houston’s segregrated Fifth Ward—known, for obvious but still complex historical and social reasons, as the “bloody Fifth” or “bloody nickel”—she reminded us, forcefully, not only of the presence and interconnection of multiple communities within any American city and space, but also of the vital need to consider our more impoverished and threatened communities in any conversations about higher education, education in general, and the American future. For example, Simmons remarked on a painful perception of hers as she returned to the Fifth Ward in recent years—that not only do its young people have no more options (educational or otherwise) than did she and her peers half a century ago, but in many ways they seem to have fewer such possible paths.
Such significant, sobering perspectives were not all that Simmons contributed to our conversations, however. She also made the case for higher education’s transformative potential, its ability in particular to broader and deepen our perspectives (individual and communal) of other communities and cultures, other stories and histories, our fellow citizens of America and the world. And she did so in inspiring ways through her own story—of her arrival at New Orleans’ Dillard University as a young woman defined in part by both understandable anger and a concurrent, circumscribed worldview (both natural results of a childhood in the segregrated South); and of the ways in which her educational experiences, beginning with those undergraduate years and continuing into her graduate studies at Harvard University and the rest of her academic career, effected sea-changes in those perspectives. Simmons used current events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri to make an entirely convincing case that it is education—and perhaps only education—which can help change our historical, cultural, and communal understandings, just as it broadened and strengthened her own. I can’t think of a more important goal for the future of American higher education.
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20, 2014: De Lange Follows Ups: The Rice CTE

[Last Monday and Tuesday I had the honor of being invited to attend Rice University’s De Lange Conference IX  as a Social Media Fellow, helping to create conversations about and around the conference theme (“Teaching in the University of Tomorrow”) and talks. It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to follow it up this week with posts on a number of the issues and ideas I encountered there. Whether you attended as well, followed on Twitter, or just have thoughts on any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you!]
On the impressive and important work being done at Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence.
I attended the De Lange Conference because of an invitation from Dr. Joshua Eyler, the Director of Rice’s new Center for Teaching Excellence. The CTE, through Eyler’s voice and presence along with those of his colleagues Dr. Robin Paige and Dr. Elizabeth Barre, was literally everywhere at the conference: sharing their work in a poster in the events hall, leading thought-provoking breakout sessions on pedagogy (on which more later this week), participating actively and critically in the backchannel conversations on Twitter (ditto), and much more. In all those ways, Eyler and his CTE colleagues illustrated not just the colleagiality and support, but also the ground-breaking research in teaching and learning, that an organization like the CTE can provide and produce.
My ten years at Fitchburg State have corresponded almost exactly with the development of our own Center for Teaching & Learning, from its initial creation by Dr. Sean Goodlett through its many faculty directors since, up to its current leadership by my English Studies colleague Dr. Kisha Tracy. The FSU CTL has truly exemplified the aforementioned kinds of collegiality and support that such institutions can offer, on every level: from the more informal (providing a comfortable space for faculty to gather, celebrating faculty publications and successes) to the more structured (an annual summer institute offering talks and workshops on teaching and learning, year-long series of talks, workshops, and reading groups on such issues). But because our CTL has not (at least not yet) been able to employ an administrative staff outside of our academic departments—that is, our faculty directors to date have maintained their roles and much of their teaching and service responsibilities within their home departments—it does not quite allow for the kinds of in-depth research projects and work that Rice’s CTE features.
There are understandable and perhaps inevitable factors at FSU (financial, contractual, institutional) that make it unlikely that our CTL would ever be able to employ a full-time director and two associate directors like Eyler, Paige, and Barre at Rice’s CTE. But throughout the De Lange Conference, Eyler and many other presenters made a compelling case for why faculty need to engage more consistently with the research and scholarship of teaching and learning, for the vital benefits that such engagement can provide for not just our individual or departmental efforts but for the future of higher education in America. And while the FSU CTL’s efforts certainly allow for such engagement for those individual faculty who attend and participate, there’s simply no substitute for an institution like the CTE, one that provides sufficient space, resources, and opportunity for more sustained and in-depth research and engagement with these issues. Not every college and university will be able to support such an institution, of course—indeed, most will not—but that just means that we all should be paying close attention to, and learning as much as we can from, the efforts at Rice’s CTE.
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October 18-19, 2014: My Own Current Projects!

[It had been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars, so for this week’s series I highlighted five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. This special addendum to that series is an update on some of my own ongoing writing projects!]
The updated on my latest book project that I promised yesterday isn’t quite ready to be shared yet, although I’m hoping for news soon and you’ll be among the first to know if and when it comes! In the meantime, I wanted to highlight three other spaces in which I have shared or will soon share my writing and ideas:
1)      The Good Men Project: Thanks to my colleague and friend Steve Edwards, I’ve had a chance to write four pieces to date for this important website and project. I hadn’t shared them before because they’re not AmericanStudying so much as, well, ParentingStudying and DivorceStudying. But there’s a reason why I’ve had that pic of my boys atop this blog since day one—part of public scholarship is, to my mind, recognizing how much our own identities and lives are tied to our work and analyses. So I’m happy to share the GMP pieces here, and would love to hear your thoughts on them, as ever.
2)      We’re History: This brand spankin’ new online history magazine is the brainchild of Heather Richardson, and promises to be a wonderful resource for public history-writing. My first piece, on attacks on the White House in American pop culture and history, has just appeared, and I look forwad to contributing a lot more to—and reading even more of others’ contributions on—this equal parts historical and 21st century resource and community. Make sure to check out all the great current content on the site, and to keep an eye on it as more is launched soon.
3)      The Conversation: This great British and Australian site is about to launch an American version, and I’m excited to be a contributor to that new site, with my first piece (on alliances across and between oppressed communities, both historical and contemporary) forthcoming soon. I’ll make sure to share it here when it appears, and will be exploring the new American Conversation in the weeks to come—as should you!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Other projects, books, or scholars you’d share, including your own work? I’d love to hear about them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 17, 2014: New NEASA Books: A History of Spiritualism and the Occult in Salem

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the great book about a great topic by a great AmericanStudier.
I’ve written a good deal in this space about Salem, and for good reason: it’s my favorite public, historical space in Massachusetts (and perhaps in America—sorry native Virginia!), features my single favorite memorial/piece of public art, is full of complex and evocative American histories and stories, represents some of the worst yet also some of the best of what we have been and can be in America. I think there’s a great deal more for us to say and think about Salem than we have yet, and I can’t imagine a better person to help us continue to say and think about the city than Maggi Smith-Dalton.
I’ve also featured Maggi a fair amount in this space: not only in that above linked post, but also in this post on her performance with her husband Jim Dalton at the 2012 NEASA Colloquium; and these posts on my pieces for the Salem History Time series that Maggi edits. In her writing and editing, as well as those musical and educational performances and programs with Jim, Maggi exemplifies public AmericanStudying to me, and is just as closely linked in my mind to her home city of Salem. And one of her latest contributions to the AmericanStudying of that city is her recent book, A History of Spiritualism and the Occult in Salem: The Rise of Witch City (The History Press, 2012).
I could write another paragraph here about History of Spiritualism, but I’ll just say this: it’s only 10 bucks on the Kindle (and 20 in paperback)! All of the books I’ve featured in this week’s series are well worth your time and investment, and will more than pay you back in what they can add to your sense of American culture, history, literature, and society. Check ‘em out, and please share your thoughts on them here if you do (as well as any other books or authors you’d share)!
An update on my own next book this weekend,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

October 16, 2014: New NEASA Books: American Blood

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the challenging book that illustrates how constructed and contested even the seemingly simplest American concepts are.
I’ve been eagerly following Holly Jackson’s evolving work on family, race, and blood in late 19th century American literature, culture, and society since 2005, when I heard her give a NEASA talk on her discoveries about the identity of novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins. That work has culminated (although I’m sure not concluded) in her book American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850-1900 (Oxford UP, 2013). American Blood is the densest and most theoretically driven of the works I’ve highlighted this week, making it more what I’d call academic than public scholarship (which isn’t in any way a critique, just a categorization). But it also offers an incredibly important public AmericanStudies lesson.
I’ve blogged many times before, such as in this 2012 election post, about the subtle but crucial importance of contesting our collective use and definition of “American.” So much of the time it seems as if we assume that the word has a stable or fixed meaning, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Recognizing and analyzing the constructed, contested nature of the term is thus an important project, and one that would of course affect all Americans. But even this AmericanStudier has to admit that there are other terms that are both even more fundamental and more generally treated as stable and simple than “American,” and toward the top of that list would have to be “family.” Yet as Jackson’s book convincingly demonstrates, family has been just as constructed and contested a concept in American culture and society as any.
It’s particularly significant that Jackson highlights and traces such constructions and contestations throughout the 19th century. It’d be hard for anyone to argue that family doesn’t have diverse meanings and narratives associated with it in our 21st century moment, or that they haven’t been developing throughout much of the last half-century. But indeed, many arguments about those contemporary meanings—perhaps even our dominant shared take on them—see them precisely as changes, shifts away from more stable or agreed-upon prior visions of family. So Jackson’s book might be more dense and theoretical than what I’d generally categorize as public scholarship, but I can’t imagine a more important public scholarly takeaway than what she has to contribute to our collective understanding of the foundational but far from simple concept of family.
Last NEASA book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October 15, 2014: New NEASA Books: Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the biography that exemplifies, and also transcends, that genre.
I’ve written twice previously in this space about Marion “Clover” Hooper Adams—once in the context of her husband Henry, who partly modeled his fictional heroine Esther on his wife; and once in a post on sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose moving Washington, DC sculpture “Grief” was created as a tribute to Clover after her 1885 suicide. But Clover’s brief, tragic, complex, and rich life is more than deserving of its own post and a lot more, as illustrated by Natalie Dykstra’s thorough, groundbreaking, and compulsively readable biography Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
Dykstra’s book does everything that you’d want a historical biography to do. She delineates the specific elements of Clover’s identity very effectively, helping readers to feel that they truly know this complex woman (as well as we can know anyone who died 130 years ago, at least); but she also locates Clover within the social, historical, and cultural contexts of late 19th century America very successfully, making clear how much her place, time, and world influenced those individual elements. She doesn’t shy away at all from uncertain and controversial topics, including not only Clover’s suicide but also her inspiring yet troubled marriage to Henry; yet the biography never strays into gossip territory, remaining serious and scholarly despite Dykstra’s engaging and accessible attention to such intriguing and universal topics.
So a great and highly recommended historical biography—but Clover Adams is also something more. Through her extended and groundbreaking attention to and close readings of Clover’s photographs—Clover spent a good deal of her final years of experimenting with the new technology and art form—Dykstra becomes an analytical detective, developing convincing takes on Clover’s perspective, life, and experiences as a result. Many biographies rely on primary and archival sources, of course—but Dykstra’s work with the photos involves more than just recovering or engaging with such sources. She weds the skills of close reading and aesthetic analysis to her biographical project, enriching both that project and our collective understanding of Clover as a result. Want to see what new ideas those photographic analyses produced? Read the book!
Next NEASA book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October 14, 2014: New NEASA Books: Inventing the Egghead

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On the book that demonstrates how much scholarly debates can inform our biggest issues.
If I told you that one of the central contributions made by Aaron Lecklider’s wonderful Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) lies in its disagreement with another scholarly work published 50 years prior, you might think that (for those who are not themselves scholars of AmericanStudies or history, anyway) things are getting a bit too inside baseball here. It’s true that one of Lecklider’s chief goals in Inventing the Egghead is to advance a different scholarly analysis than that offered by Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)—but also true that in so doing, his book proves just how significant such intra-scholarly disagreements can be.
For one thing, Hofstadter’s book has been one of the more enduring and influential scholarly analyses of American culture. I know that I, like many of my fellow AmericanStudiers, have long been convinced by Hofstadter’s assessment of a longstanding, enduring American anti-intellectualism, by his arguments that such attitudes have been part of the American landscape for much (if not indeed all) of our existence. While Lecklider doesn’t dismiss the existence of such attitudes, however, he makes a convincing case that prior to the Cold War era, American culture and society contained at least as many pro-intellectual narratives as anti-intellectual ones, and thus that the Cold War’s widespread disdain for “the egghead” represented something distinct rather than simply a continuation of those existing attitudes. Given my own recent arguments for our need to recognize how recently created the concepts of legal and illegal immigration are, it’s fair to say that I see great value in properly locating prominent national narratives.
There’s also another layer to the importance of Lecklider’s pushback. Just like recognizing the recent nature of legal/illegal immigration allows us to think differently about the prior history of immigration policy in America, so too would shifting our sense of anti-intellectualism change our broader national narratives as well. For one thing, if American anti-intellectualism was more a creation of the Cold War than a longstanding attitude, it would be much easier to recognize how political and agenda-driven (rather than, for example, ingrained) such an attitude always is. And for another, related thing, such a shift would make it much easier to imagine changing our current, far too widespread anti-intellectualism, and returning to what Lecklider convincing argues is our more longstanding national attitude.
Next NEASA book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Monday, October 13, 2014

October 13, 2014: New NEASA Books: Beyond the White Negro

[It’s been a while since I spent a week highlighting the amazing work done by my fellow AmericanStudies scholars. So for this week’s series I thought I’d highlight five recent books by scholars with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the NEASA Council. I’d love to hear in comments about books and scholars, recent or otherwise, that have inspired you!]
On a book that quite simply exemplifies the goals I’m working toward these days.
Kimberly Chabot Davis’s first book, Postmodern Texts and Emotional Audiences (Purdue UP, 2007), offers a layered and compelling combination of reader response/reception criticism, theoretical and political engagements with postmodernism, and close analyses of cultural texts in a variety of media and forms. It represents, that is to say, an engaging and entirely successful example of 21st century literary scholarship, of how the discipline has extended to include not only multiple critical and theoretical lenses, but also a wide variety of textual forms and categories alongside more traditional creative literature. But it also is, like my own first book, most definitely geared toward scholarly audiences and communities.
A couple months ago I had the chance to read Davis’s new, second book, Beyond the White Negro: Empathy and Anti-Racist Reading (U of Illinois Press, 2014). Given how much I’ve written, in this space and many others, about my evolving and lifelong goal of producing public scholarship, it might be sufficient to say this: Beyond the White Negro is one of the best models for such scholarship I’ve read in years. It’s deeply nuanced and analytical without losing an ounce of its readability and accessibility, engages with important topics of broad public interest without simplifying its arguments and ideas in the slightest, could be read and utilized by a grad student working on her dissertation or a suburban reading group with equal success and value. It’s just great, on every level and most especially again as a model of 21st century public scholarship.
I don’t know that I need to say any more, but I will add one more important thing. Davis’s Conclusion, “Black Cultural Encounters as a Catalyst for Divestment in White Privilege,” makes extremely nuanced and effective use of her own identity, family, and experiences to add one more layer to her analyses. For much of my academic life I was taught to avoid the personal—even personal pronouns, much less personal perspectives and details—in analytical writing. I’ve resisted that advice for a long time, and would resist it even more strongly when it comes to public scholarship; we can’t possibly pretend that we’re not caught up in our topics and analyses, that they don’t depend on and aren’t tied to our perspectives and identities. Once we admit those links, the next step is to make the personal as analytical as the rest of our work. And on that level as well, Davis’s book is a model.
Next NEASA book tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Books or scholars you'd share? I'd love to hear about them!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

October 11-12, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Online Resources

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ve gone further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling cultural texts. It’s led up to this special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
Three online resources that can help you AmericanStudy Appalachia a lot further than I was able to in this handful of posts:
1)      Appalachian History: A really wonderful scholarly, cultural, and personal blog on all things Appalachia, past and present.
2)      AppLit: An NEH-supported project providing “resources for readers and teachers of Appalachian literature for children and young adults.”
3)      Appalachian Studies: Web Resources: An example of the web at its best, this West Virginia University Library site compiles dozens of resources for every aspect of Appalachian Studies.
I’d love to hear about AmericanStudies resources you’ve found or used, specific to Applachia or otherwise, in comments!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other resources you'd share?

Friday, October 10, 2014

October 10, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: The Fire and the Furnace

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On the surprising truths found in a couple of macho, mediocre action flicks.
Obviously Hollywood action films have a great deal to tell us (often unintentionally, ironically, or otherwise implicitly, to be sure) about social issues like gender and race. But reading such cultural texts for what they reveal about social issues is different from arguing that the texts intend to make social or political points, and I’d never pretend that the Bruckheimers and Bays of the world generally set out with those kinds of goals. Yet at the same time, there are unquestionably examples of action films that do intend such social and political engagements—Matt Damon’s trilogy of Bourne films comes to mind immediately—and so it’d be important to approach any individual film with an open mind toward that possibility. Yes, even a Steven Seagal film.
Online film critic Vern, one of our best contemporary reviewers, actually made the case, in his first book Seagalogy (2008), that Seagal’s films, especially the ones over which he had the most control, consistently reflect such social engagement. I haven’t seen enough of them to assess that theory, but it’s definitely true of both On Deadly Ground (1994, directed by Seagal) and the Appalachian-set Fire Down Below (1997). Seagal plays an EPA agent in both films, so much of the social and political commentary relates to environmental issues. But in Fire both those issues and numerous other plot threads are deeply tied to the history and community of its Appalachian setting: from villain Kris Kristofferson’s destruction of mountains and use of abandoned mines to dispose of toxic waste to the portrayal of a small Kentucky town striving to maintain its identity and heritage in the face of a changing world. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s got a lot to say about Appalachia.
Despite boasting an incredibly impressive cast—Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and Sam freakin’ Shepard—last year’s Out of the Furnace (2013) is to my mind a much more uneven and so even less successful film than Seagal’s. But it does do something very interesting and important: connecting the changing realities of its specific setting, a northern Appalachian steel mill town (Braddock, Pennsylvania—that article provided filmmaker Scott Cooper with his movie’s title), to early 21st century national and international issues, including returning Iraq War veterans and the post-2008 recession. As I hope this entire series has illustrated, Appalachia—like every American setting and region—demands analyses of both its specific histories and stories and its ongoing and evolving relationship to the nation and world beyond its mountains, and Out of the Furnace, like all my week’s texts, can help us develop those analyses.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October 9, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: The Black Mountain Poets

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On how context can amplify and enrich our analysis of individual authors and works.
I had a high school English teacher who really liked Robert Creeley, so we read a fair amount of his work as part of a poetry unit; I then read a good bit more Creeley as part of a college poetry course with the great Helen Vendler; and I returned to Creeley one more time as a supplemental author for a grad school paper I was writing on Robert Penn Warren’s poetry. I was of course a very different person and reader at each of those stages, but one thing remained the same: Creeley’s poetry did very little for me. I appreciated his potent, imagistic use of language, which reminded me a bit of William Carlos Williams; but for whatever reason, the depths that I have consistently found and appreciated in Williams’ poems eluded me when I read Creeley’s at each of those different moments.
My perspective on Creeley and his poetry has significantly evolved, however, and it has done so in large part through a better understanding of his principal literary and cultural communities: the Black Mountain Poets, and Asheville, NC’s Black Mountain College where they were located. It generally helps to have a sense of what goals and concepts infuse a poet’s work, for example, and reading Charles Olson’s seminal essay “Projective Verse” (1950), widely considered a manifesto for the Black Mountain Poets, gave me a much clearer sense of the use to which Creeley and his colleagues hoped to put their striking images. Olson writes of “Objectism, … a word to be taken to stand for the kind of relation of man to experience which a poet might state as the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is, to be as clean as wood is as it issues from the hand of nature, to be as shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it.” A distinctly Appalachian analogy to be sure, and one borne out by the careful shaping of Creeley and his peers.
Yet Black Mountain College was more than just home to this group of avant-garde poets; over its 23 years of existence (1933-1956), the experimental educational institution featured instruction from (among many others!) Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Duncan, and Olson and Creeley, as well as guest lectures by William Carlos Williams and a certain physicist by the name of Albert Einstein. The College’s influence on modernist and postmodernist American culture, as well as on society more broadly, was profound and lasting, and the Black Mountain Poets represent only one part of those widespread effects. But they were a part of it, and it a part of them--and the more we can see Creeley and his fellow poets as operating within that experimental, artistic but also social and educational, southern Appalachian space, the more we (no, I’ll speak for myself, the more I) can appreciate their works.
Last Appalachian text tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

October 8, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Murfree’s Mountains

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On three compelling reasons to read one of Appalachia’s most talented writers.
One of the most successful local color writers of the 1870s and 1880s, the era when such regional fiction dominated the American literary landscape, didn’t quite exist. By 1885 Charles Egbert Craddock had published numerous stories of Appalachian local color in the period’s magazines (as well as two impressive books, on which more momentarily); but in March 1885, as fellow AmericanStudier and blogger Rob Velella highlights in this great post, Craddock was revealed to William Dean Howells and others in the Boston literary scene (by one of the Atlantic Monthly’s editors, Thomas Bailey Alrdich, who had himself only learned of Craddock’s true identity the previous night) to be in fact a woman, Mary Noailles Murfree. Plenty of 19th century women writers wrote under male pseudonyms, but I don’t know of a revelatory moment quite as striking as Murfree’s.
Even without that striking literary moment, however, Murfree’s Appalachian stories would be well worth reading. She was and remains best known for the short story collection In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), considered one of the masterworks of American regionalism. Like much local color writing, Murfree’s stories often straddle the fence between nuanced realism and stereotypical exaggeration, just as her own identity existed both inside (she grew up in Murfreesboro, a town named after her own great-grandfather) and outside (that ancestor was a Revolutionary war Colonel and serious blue blood, and Murfree’s family was wealthy enough to vacation at the Beersheba Springs resort every summer of her childhood) the Tennessee Appalachian community. But of course, we’re all both insiders and outsiders to our childhood communities, much like each community and region bears a complex relationship to the nation as a whole, and Murfree’s collection presents a funny, engaging, thought-provoking way to consider all those questions.
Just as impressive, and far less well-known, is Murfree’s 1884 Civil War/Reconstruction novel Where the Battle Was Fought. In some ways the novel embodies a genre that by 1884 had become an American cliché: the romance of reunion, with former Union and Confederate families brought together by a conventional love story plot. But Murfree’s novel pushes beyond that stereotype, in ways that I would argue embody a far more under-narrated and distinctly Appalachian history: the experiences of a border state, the areas that bore dual and shifting allegiances throughout the Civil War. West Virginia, as I argued in that aforementioned apology post, came into existence as precisely such a state; but Kentucky and Tennessee occupied similar geographical and ideological territory, and Murfree uses her novel’s families and stories to depict those border histories with depth and power. Just another reason to spend some time in her Appalachian mountains.
Next Appalachian text tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?