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Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

Reaching For the Promised Land

WeMarchforJusticecover375As I sat down to write this piece about the “We March for Justice! Race & Oppression” research study tour that I participated in this past March, I hesitated and came to the realization that I couldn’t. For far too long, U.S. history has been dominated by white narratives. I didn’t want to write a piece that asserted that my white narrative was inherently the only one that mattered, or that it represented all of the adverse experiences, or that it was a comprehensive representation of what the group I traveled with encountered. I simply didn’t want to contribute to the collection of white narratives that have appropriated the experiences of marginalized people, displacing their stories.

I expressed my concerns to my English professor. He asked me why I felt this way. I told him that I was concerned about writing another white narrative about the experiences of marginalized people, and that’s when he told me that my experience mattered too.

It reminded me of when I first heard someone say that black history is taught as an elective. I understood that African-American history is taught as if it isn’t a part of U.S. history, as if they’re two separate entities.

I was reminded that both African-Americans and whites were affected by slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, post-reconstruction, and eventually the Civil Rights Movement. White activists, moderates, and oppressors alike experienced these histories too. These are all collective histories.

So, the life-changing experience I had studying and traveling for a week in the South matters too.

My experience isn’t disassociated from everyone else’s simply because I’m white. It’s a part of something bigger; it’s a part of things felt and things changed. This trip ultimately changed my life and I’m going to share why.

Coming into this trip, I had a lot of expectations. I assumed that studying something so intentionally closeted like the reality of racism would be sensitive and intensely emotional. The reality of what the trip would be was surreal until we had our first class session following our arrival in Memphis.

We sat in chairs that bordered the union of two round tables. We gathered closely, as if the discussion topic was confidential, and happily agonized over the intricate details of post-reconstruction laws and court cases. We deconstructed the laws that perpetuated the enslavement of African-Americans. Beyond the surface, we critically analyzed every aspect of the rhetoric presented and it was utterly unnerving.ConfedFlag350

I slowly came to realize that the laws that inherently protect my white privilege, which are strangely identified as just, equal, and blind, were and are utilized as a tool of oppression to degrade the humanity of African-Americans. This realization was hard to swallow, even a bit nauseating.

I don’t know what’s worse; understanding the horrific reality of enslavement or recognizing that I can walk away from reading about it while the ones who suffered and continue to suffer can’t.

The following day, we were given a tour of the Mississippi delta by Mayor Thomas, the first African-American mayor of Glendora. I have very few words beyond “strength,” “integrity,” and “resilience” to define this gentleman.

Glendora, Mississippi is home to some two-hundred people, visible manifestations of neo-Jim Crow, and the murder of Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was a fourteen year-old boy who was murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, for allegedly whistling at a white woman in the summer of 1955. He was kidnapped in the middle of the night and driven around Sunflower County for hours on the back of a pick-up truck. He was beaten, shot dead, tied to a cotton gin with barbed wire, and thrown into the Black Bayou, which feeds into the Tallahatchie River, bright and early on a Sunday morning. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges by an all-white jury. Two months later, they sold their confessions of the brutal murder to Look magazine for four thousand dollars. They were never tried again in a court of law.

EmmettTillSignBullets400Retracing the case and Till’s last moments was haunting. We visited the area where Till’s swollen, dead body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie three days after his disappearance. As we pulled up to the marker designating the spot, the sign that commemorated Till’s discovery was riven with bullet holes. The bullet holes that traced the words memorializing Till vividly illustrate past and current animosity towards the Till case within the surrounding community.

We visited the church where Till’s body was allegedly buried after his discovery. The church, previously owned by the relative that Till was staying with at the time of his death, is currently decrepit. The roof collapsed what appears like decades ago, as foliage is coiling over the opening. The pews are strewn across the floor. Cob webs cover the ceiling panels that still remain. Beyond the pews stands the pulpit, from where you can carefully trace the red carpet towards the front entrance. To the left of the front door, bullet holes pierce through the white cement walls. Standing under the canopy of a split roof left me with the eerie feeling that pure hatred had subdued this place that once housed unbridled faith and worship. I could almost envision the antipathy oozing out of the bullet holes.

9751-copyWe visited the Sumner court house where Bryant and Milam were tried for Till’s murder a few towns down the road. A Confederate statue and the Mississippi flag that bears the Confederate emblem stand in front of the court house. Just a few steps away, a marker stands that memorializes Till’s case. This arrangement is painfully ironic.

Sumner is largely populated by whites while Glendora is entirely African-American. Can you guess which town is prospering and which one lies in ruin and is rife with poverty? Do I even have to say it?

We concluded our tour of Sunflower County by ordering lunch at Glendora’s tiny grocery store. Outside, the store appeared battered and dilapidated, but inside it was glistening with fresh stocks of snack foods, beverages, and cigarettes. We eagerly collected our feasts of burgers, fries, and beverages. We hadn’t eaten all day because intense concentration and learning, as we all know, makes you incredibly hungry. This grocery store is the first in Glendora in more than fifty years. For most of Mayor Thomas’s life, he drove sixty miles, there and back, to purchase necessities in another town. The establishment of this grocery store was led by Mayor Thomas’s efforts just a few months ago.

I sat on our bus eating my burger, looking out the window at the little rundown grocery store. I could eat and enjoy my burger and leave, but the people of Glendora couldn’t. They can’t escape the poverty of their little town in a big black bus like we did; this little rundown grocery store is emblematic of their lives.

As the sun was at its highest point over Beale Street the following evening, we entered the Ernest Withers Museum where we met three sanitation workers who protested for equal rights and wages in 1968. The three men, now in their eighties, walked in and we momentarily stood in awe, out of respect, before politely greeting them.

CivilRights BlogIn hushed and rusty voices, they recalled their own personal reasons for striking. In 1968, a sanitation worker, which was a position solely held by African-Americans, could work a forty hour week and make so little money that he would still qualify for government assistance. Immediately after hearing this, my cheeks were swollen with red hot anger and shame. I was furious thinking about the white people, like me, who had enabled this form of degradation.

They told about times of chaos and violence. They recited memories of batons cracking their heads open like yoke in an egg shell. However, it wasn’t the details of their sufferings that scared me the most; rather, it was the realization that these men had to protest for their own humanity, as if they weren’t inherently born with it.

The following day we toured the Lorraine Motel, which has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum.

The museum is composed of some twenty-plus exhibits. Not only was it an overload of information, with every inch of wall space covered by bold contemporary style lettering, graphics, and technologically advanced displays, but it was emotionally overwhelming too.

I particularly remember stopping at the exhibit that vividly displayed words like “Bombingham” and “Children’s Crusade”.

“Bombingham” referred to the more than fifty racially motivated bombings in 1963 when absolutely zero leads were followed, zero suspects arrested, zero trials held, and zero convictions ruled.

Children's Crusade“Children’s Crusade” commemorated the thousands of children, younger than Emmett Till, who marched in the streets of Birmingham in 1963. The children assembled at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church the Sunday following it’s bombing by a Klan member, a bombing that killed four adolescent girls. Martin Luther King Jr. led their funerals with Isaiah 11:6; “A little child shall lead them.” The statistics regarding the crusade read, “10 children arrested per minute – 2,500 total.”

The children who heroically led the march were met with high-pressure hoses and attack dogs. The assault was relentless. The photographs and footage of the violence in Birmingham were circulated and broadcasted throughout the entire nation. The brutality provoked a national outcry for justice. Every inch of barbarity was displayed in the exhibit; it brought me to tears.

On the last day, we convened for one last time as a group to fully debrief our experiences.

We asked questions regarding the promotion of the ideologies of the movement and the importance of studying it. The answers came flowing out in forms of tears, raspy voices, and determined rhetoric.

I said something along the lines of being fortunate enough to receive help from my community in the many struggles of my young life and that I want to do the same for others by utilizing my talents and abilities. It was quaint, but incredibly sincere and coming from a genuine place.

With regard to studying the movement, does that question even need to be asked? Slavery, racism, oppression – all part of the movement – are my history, your history, our history. We can no longer exclude African-American history, as if it is an elective disconnected from U.S. history.

As I began to write this piece, it transformed from a single white narrative into an important collective experience. As I began to write this piece, it was also April 4th, the forty-eighth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

LorraineHotelIt would be remiss of me not to conclude this piece by quoting the speech he delivered no more than twenty-four hours before being shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis.

Over three thousand people assembled in the crowded Mason Temple where Martin delivered his last speech.

When I first saw footage of him delivering the Mountaintop speech, his elocution rung through my entire body. It rung so intensely that it was almost nauseating, bringing warm tears streaming down my cheeks.

Martin concluded his brief speech with,

“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

Like Martin, I’ve seen the Promised Land, where humanity, equity, and equality is directly ingrained in the young, diverse minds of this nation.

With that being said, there’s an extensive and exhaustive amount of work to be done to advocate and promote equity and equality at structural levels within our society. African-Americans continue to be systemically criminalized, disenfranchised, and so on. African-Americans ultimately lack the equal opportunity to access higher education and learn how to change the system that perpetually oppresses them. Martin’s fight, the movement’s fight, our fight, is far from over.

Like Martin, I may not get there with you, I may not see structural change in my lifetime.

But like Martin, I want you to know that we as a people, we as a nation, will get to the Promised Land, where equity and equality thoroughly prosper as one, where the humanity of every single being is valued, and where we will flourish and thrive with the knowledge of our history.

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Grace Maruska is freshman intending to major in English and minor in American Culture and Difference. Her years spent in college and beyond will be directed towards helping the community of St. Paul, her beloved hometown. Her passions—and the focus of her higher education—include social justice, which is what she intends to promote and advocate for in the near future.

Student Research, Study Abroad, The Value of English, Undergraduate English

It’s An Adventure: Walking and Writing Ireland

Dun Aengus Group-680Trading in Minnesota’s snow flurries and below freezing temperatures for soft rains and lush greenery, I joined a group of twenty-one other students and two professors on a quest to walk and write our way through the streets and countryside of Ireland. During the month of January, we covered much of the small country, gallivanting through medieval castles in quaint little towns, weaving between busses on bicycles, and perfecting our collective ability to take group photos.

That, however, was not the sole purposeFisherman's Village-340 of our journey to the Emerald Isle. Led by Professors Emily James and James Garlick, the students enrolled in “Walking and Writing Ireland” spent the month of January poring over the words of Ireland’s literary greats, such as W. B. Yeats and James Joyce.  We had the opportunity to interact with texts in a way that could not be afforded by sitting in a classroom back home.  Tucking away in the upstairs quarters of bookstores and coffee shops, we spent hours picking apart the imagery and themes of Joyce’s poignant short stories.  Each afternoon, we took to the streets to trace the steps of those very stories.

JoyceJames-160One of the key themes we identified and contemplated in Joyce’s work was the overwhelming sense of paralysis. In some way, each of his characters yearned for something beyond the monotony of their everyday lives—something remarkable.  Despite their best efforts, however, these characters could never break free from the confines of their physical, financial, or social limitations.  They were simply stuck.

Wicklow Mountains-340Intrigued by their reach for the extraordinary world just beyond their grasp, I was inspired to explore the counterpart to Joyce’s paralysis: adventure. Although seemingly simple at first glance, “adventure” is rich with historical and cultural significance.  The word’s popularity spiked in the seventeenth century, which speaks to the period’s fascination with exploration.  However, as time progressed, “adventure” widened to encompass the agency of the individual.  No longer did an individual need to be an esteemed explorer who braves the treacherous high seas and unpredictable climates.  As Joyce and his contemporaries understood, an adventurer may now take the face of any individual, provided that he or she has an open heart, open mind, and daring spirit.  In the words of essayist Rebecca Solnit, “When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back.”

Dun Aengus Cliffs-680I stood atop the cliffs of Dun Aengus with the Atlantic Ocean stretching out before me. The salty sea breeze filled my lungs as my feet dangled over the ledge, three hundred feet above the crashing waves below. Despite my paralyzing fear of heights, I was not afraid.  Some crave the pulse of adrenaline through their veins.  But for me, an adventure is about contentment.  It’s about sitting at the edge of the earth and not feeling afraid.

And adventurers we became.

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Elise Limper is a junior English with a Secondary Education (5-12) major. After graduation, she hopes to teach high school English to share her love of the written word. With a passion for photography and a severe case of the travel bug, she also aspires to travel the world with her camera in tow.

 

Student Research, Undergraduate English

The Art of Bookmaking

Book Art

Loving books is an implied prerequisite for English majors, but many of us take the process of bookmaking for granted. Books, like everything else, are mass-produced, but the Minnesota Center for Book Arts takes things at a slower pace, and we should love them for it. As part of the Literary Magazine Practicum, the editors of the Summit Avenue Review took a field trip to theMCBA logo 200X200 Minnesota Center for Book Arts in downtown Minneapolis. We were able to see various printing presses and learned about the intricacies of typesetting.

When studying literary magazines and journals in class, we focus on the intention behind design decisions. Seeing the materials and processes first hand helped us to understand the importance of making purposeful decisions. You are forced to think carefully when hand setting type because every space, letter, and punctuation mark is placed individually.

The editors were able to participate in MCBA’s work by printing our own book art on a roller press. We watched the process of inking the press and learned how to line up the paper for an even print. I waited until it was my turn and then approached the machine. I pressed my foot on the pedal to place the fresh sheet of paper at the preset mark. MBA3-320We had been warned that it was sometimes tricky to get the feel of how fast to turn the handle. As I turned it, the cylinder gained steady momentum as my free hand followed in order to hold the paper in place. I removed my paper, now imprinted with reddish brown ink. Rolling the press back into place required more force than I had anticipated. After we all printed it was time to fold our booklets. We used bone folders to crease the paper and X-acto knives to make slits for folding, creating a small eight-page booklet.

We were also able to see different types of hand bound books that are held together with various stitching, adhesives, or a combination of the two. Artists choose the medium that best supports the message they are trying to convey. For example, a poem may be printed on a broadside with large margins or in a small booklet depending on the preference of the artist. We saw examples of each of these, and more, during our tour. We were also shown the product of a collaboration between MCBA employees and local artists: the 2015 Winter Book: “From the Center: On Community and the Practice of Making,” which explores the connection between community and book arts.

The MCBA also has facilities for making paper, and offers classes for children, adults, and has an artist in residence program. The center displays artwork made there as well, featuring many different local artists. Much of the art is solely to be viewed, but many cards, notebooks and other pieces are available for purchase in MCBA’s store.

Morgan Alexander

Morgan Alexander is a senior double majoring in English with a Writing Emphasis and Business Management. She is the President of Sigma Tau Delta Literary Club, a marketing intern at UST Executive Education, and one of the editors for the Summit Avenue Review. She is a self-proclaimed fontaholic who enjoys reading, traveling, and is constantly searching for her next coffee fix.

Faculty Research, Faculty Teaching

True Monsters

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It’s 1995. I own: a pine wood futon, a Compaq Presario laptop computer (no modem), a few banker’s boxes full of books, and enough clothes to fill two duffle bags. I live in a corner studio apartment just off Saddle Creek Road in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve just started an English MA program at Creighton University. And at this very moment a car is on fire outside my front door. I stick my head out to see what’s going on and a guy I have never seen before blurts out at me, “Dude just walked up, pulled out a gas can, poured it all over the car, and dropped a match.” I go back inside and call 911 before settling back down to watch the rest of Charlie Rose.


I didn’t grow up in what you would call an “intellectual” family. My dad was a truck driver and then he worked for a pipeline company for thirty years. My mom was a nurse. We had books in our house, but we didn’t really talk about them that much. I read a lot, but, as you might suspect, elementary kids just aren’t that interested in the latest Sidney Sheldon novel your mom got in the mail from the Book of the Month Club. I guess I craved intellectual exchange.

HLGCharlieRoseMaybe that was why in that tiny, dark apartment, I had become obsessed with The Charlie Rose Show – not so much because of Charlie (and his slow, obtuse questions), but because of the people he had on his show: smart people. Writers, directors, activists, artists – you name it – these were the kind of people that made you want to be brilliant and on TV sitting in a black room with a glass of water on a table, pontificating on some subject, whatever the hell it might be. I remember seeing Gore Vidal on the show one night, and I was completely hypnotized by his unquestioned confidence. He knew he was right about everything (even if he wasn’t), and I loved it. Another night I saw Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was talking about the Encyclopedia Africana, which he was still working on with Kwame Anthony Appiah at the time. The comprehensive reference project on all of Africana culture, it was envisioned by W.E.B. DuBois nearly one hundred years earlier. Gates beamed, chatting about the joy of making his dream come true, of bringing the vision of DuBois to life.

At that moment I was completely sold. Not only did I know for sure I wanted to be a professor (a decision I was still turning over in my head at the time), I wanted to be a famous professor – someone who would appear on TV discussing his newest project, someone who would get the call when PBS was shooting a documentary on James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, someone who, when he began to speak, people would stop and listen to.


It’s 2014. I am sitting in a small room inside a giant warehouse just north of downtown St. Paul. The room is part of a spare suite that belongs to a local production company, and I am submitting to being mopped with makeup because I am just about to make my first appearance as an expert for a documentary TV show.

The makeup artist is trying to reassure me that she knows what she is doing. She explains, “I’m going to make you look just like you . . . but better.” makeupartisttools300A second later, a production assistant bursts into the room with a shirt of mine on a plastic hanger. “This one will work. They like this one. And keep the undershirt,” he says. I want to ask him, “who’s upstairs right now? Who are they filming up there?” I keep hearing the other PA’s bounding up and down the stairs screaming at each other, “Man, that guy is great!” “Where do you think that accent is from?” “I dunno, but he is killing it with those stories.” Sounds like the cat is good.

“Ok, we’re finished.” The makeup artist packs up her stuff and leaves me sitting there with a pancaked face and a handful of crumpled notes – answers to questions I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be asked. I’ve never ever done this before, so I have no idea what’s going to happen. Soon the PA from before pokes his head through the doorway and whispers, “You ready to shoot, Chief?” I nod, get up, and follow him up the stairs into the darkness.


HistoryChannel200It’s 2015. I’m sitting in my lucky chair in the living room of my house. I know it’s lucky because the night before, the Kansas City Royals, my favorite team, completed another ridiculous comeback to beat some or other media-proclaimed murderer’s row. I’m waiting for the show True Monsters to come on the History Channel. It’s been over a year since I sat for two hours in that warehouse at the end of a giant camera, muttering answers to questions I had only a vague idea were coming. I have to see the show because, honestly, I don’t have any idea what the heck I even said. What if I sound like an idiot? What if I look stupid? What if I said something factually incorrect? As the intro sequence begins, I consider another troubling possibility: what if the show isn’t very good? This is, after all, the History Channel, home of Pawn Stars and Ancient Aliens. Who is going to watch this crap? This isn’t what I signed up for. I wanted to be like Henry Louis Gates – hell, even Neil Degrasse Tyson. Dude built a whole media career off of saying smart things on television.

As I sit back in my chair waiting for the fateful moment, hands trembling, heart pulsing, the cringe-worthy music begins. The screen flickers with fast-cut images of wolves, werewolves, little girls in red capes, pools of blood, and anything else prurient and salacious you can think of. I start to panic as the first segment rolls by. It’s not the best TV I’ve ever seen. Or, should I say that it’s exactly what you would expect to see on today’s History Channel, a venue that thinks history is when an old crotchety white guy explains the value of a twenty-foot tall gas-powered dragon head car crusher to two dudes dressed in leather pants.

little-red-riding-hood-jessie-willcox-smith2And then it happens. My face flashes across the screen. The mouth on my TV face is moving, but what the hell is it saying? Something about Little Red Riding Hood “falling and breaking the bottle?” (Breaking the bottle is an allusion to virginity, I told them in the interview, and the wolf as a werewolf is indicative of fears about the animal characteristics of men, but in the end, they only used maybe 25-30 seconds of what I said. They didn’t care about folklore; they kept talking about the “original” version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, when of course there isn’t one.) Hmm, that wasn’t bad analysis, though. As the segment continues, I have some other interesting things to say – as interesting as things can be in two or three seconds – which is more than the editors give poor Jack Zipes. The guy who wrote books on “Little Red Riding Hood” is getting less airtime than I am. This is definitely an error in judgment. But, you know what? I’m not bad – certainly not as bad as the show is.


So it wasn’t Charlie Rose, but it was fun and I didn’t embarrass myself. I did ok discussing Conomor the Accursed as a source for “Bluebeard” and the North Carolina legend of the Tar River Banshee. Maybe the show was a little schlocky, but how can I complain when I was on the same series as the High Priest of the Church of Satan? I bet Skip Gates can’t say that. And anyway, I’ll never be Skip Gates. I don’t even want to be anymore. I’ll be “David Todd Lawrence, Ph.D. – Folklorist,” on True Monsters, talking about fairy tales and legends. Nothing wrong with that. But maybe I should get some leather pants?

 

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Todd Lawrence is an associate professor in the English Department. In addition to teaching folklore studies, Lawrence also researches and teaches in areas that include: The Black Arts Movement, African American outlaw culture, Afrofuturism, memorialization and public space, and disaster studies. He continues to work on a project in collaboration with the displaced residents of Pinhook, MO, a town destroyed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the Birds Point-New Madrid levee in southeast Missouri during the Heartland Flood of 2011. This work focuses on African American narratives of disaster and resilience. 

Graduate English, Master's Essay, Student Research

The Construction of Utopia: More, Columbus, and Ever Since

CClog680My research for this capstone project began in one serendipitous moment: an oversized book in the library stacks caught hold of my elbow as I walked by. The protruding offender was The Log of Christopher Columbus (1492-93), a text that documents Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. Columbus carefully recorded in the ship’s log, among other things, detailed observations of the geographical formations and spectacular social interactions with the Arawak (Taino) Indians he encountered in the Caribbean islands in 1492. Intrigued, I sat on the floor and read it cover to cover and placed it back on the shelf.  It wasn’t until the following semester in Dr. MacKenzie’s Renaissance class that I noticed echoes of the ship’s log in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).

More, who coined the word utopia from the Greek “ou” (“not) and “topos” (“place”), created within the human imagination a place or state of things in which everything is perfect and yet, because it is perfect, ultimately unattainable. Utopia, meaning nowhere, stands contrary to Columbus’s somewhere; and yet, placed side-by-side the two texts show uncanny similarities on many levels.

Generally, the two texts align in style, form, content, and function. However, even certain puzzling ambiguities in Utopia, ones that have been swirling around in critical circles for the last 500 years—the abundance of glass; cloaks and bird feathers; incubation of poultry; two doors to each house; and so on—can be linked to the writings of Columbus. This perspective suggests that Columbus’s ship’s log acts as the impetus for More’s masterpiece. In short, I explore More’s Utopia as a text through which history becomes recognizable.

britishlibrarysign320In January 2015, I was lucky to be in London where a first edition of Utopia, published in 1516, is located. But first, in order to see the rare copy at the British Library, I had to jump through a few administrative hoops: apply in advance for a Reader Pass; provide a special letter of intent from our Graduate Program Director; reserve a Reading Room; reserve the text for a specific day and time. The whole process was fascinating and worth it! I sat at the designated Rare Book table (under the watchful eyes of a librarian) staring at Utopia—literally staring, since the original was written in Latin. Nevertheless, it made me wonder about the life of the text and more urgently, perhaps, how we understand the term utopia today.

In my research, as the spirit of More’s Utopia emerges from Columbus’s descriptions in 1492, utopia (the concept) proves trickier to trace. The utopian concept develops through five centuries of utopian/dystopian literature, art, ideologies, and so on, arriving in its current role as something of a touchstone we refer to when we describe the perfect setting, people, or society we know can never be, paradoxically filling both a hopeful and melancholy space in our lives. It represents conditions and ideas that may complicate our natural way of thinking, frustrating our views of current society and governance.

In the English lexicon, utopia (the concept) shifts easily into a socio-political safe haven protected by virtue of its non-existence.  For if we believe the concept always to be impracticable and unattainable (brought only to our attention through More’s imagination) then what viable thought spaces allow for us to radically confront our present social structures, governing methods, and ideologies? In other words, what matrices allow for imaging a possible alternative existence if the very paradigm itself is inherently self-defeating? Somewhere along its history, utopia (the concept) possesses the ability to constrain, or even shackle, our boundary-less imaginations and, more importantly, our propensity to act on them.

What emerges from my interrogation is a distorted understanding of a concept that began as a reproduction of the real. To clarify this interpretation, I implement Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra to illuminate an evolution of the concept of utopia that has seemingly detached itself from history. Perhaps “perfection,” I argue in my essay, in the utopian sense today should be simply eliciting the latent realization of illimitable possibilities. 


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After graduation, Lindy Hensley is relocating to Denver, Colorado where she plans to pursue teaching opportunities. Beyond academia, her continued interests revolve around theater production.

 

 

Faculty Research, Faculty Teaching

Entering the World of Digital Humanities

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The Parliament Buildings at night (Victoria, BC)

The problem was, they didn’t offer “Digital Humanities for Dummies.”  I’m not a technology-savvy person.  Okay, let’s face it, sometimes my toaster is too complicated for me (revelation:  it won’t toast unless you actually plug it in). So why did I sign up to join three digital-sophisticated colleagues—professors Alexis Easley, Emily James, and Sal Pane—to travel to Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the annual Digital Humanties Summer Institute (DHSI)? I had discovered in my graduate classes that students were tackling compelling computer-assisted projects, having mastered some of the DH platforms and tools in their other classes.  I wanted to learn more about this brave new world and had two wonderful opportunities to do so during this past summer, 2015:  the first at DHSI in Victoria and the second in a Faculty Development Summer Seminar here at UST.

What is Digital Humanities?  It appears to be one of those fields where, if you lay all the specialists end-to-end, they won’t reach an agreement.  But the definition provided by Dr. Annie Swafford (SUNY New Paltz, one of the leaders of the on-campus DH seminar) is helpful.  DigitalHumHeader-Blog640She writes, “The field of Digital Humanities is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities that study the human record with computers and digital tools.  The goals are to (1) ask new questions; (2) answer traditional questions in new ways, e.g. ‘using quantification to prompt interpretation’; (3) share data/resources with the larger academic community and citizen scholars; (4) build new tools to ask/answer questions; and (5) augment/challenge print culture (i.e. challenge students to rethink in ways they might not otherwise when completing more traditional assignments).”  Side note:  coming to us from New York, Annie asked for a tour of the Twin Cities.  I took her to visit Minnehaha Falls (pretty, but dinky—I’m from Niagara Falls), the Guthrie Theater, the Walker sculpture garden (must-see “Spoonbridge and Cherry”), and ended with dinner at Nye’s Polonaise.  Annie’s ability to appreciate naugahyde booths and polka music (or at least her ability to appear to appreciate these things) was endearing.

agas_fragment640Back on topic:  DHSI ran from 8-12 June 2015 and, as I started to say, did not precisely offer an entry-level course.  Most of those gathered for the workshops were already adept in the field; I, the neophyte, joined the popular course, “Digital Pedagogy Integration in the Curriculum” taught by Diane Jakacki and Mary Galvin.  Since everyone (besides me) had fairly extensive experience using digital platforms and tools, instructors and guest lecturers coming to visit (in person or by Skype) focused on how to orchestrate DH assignments into a coherent project or full course structure.  For instance, we heard about Janelle Jenstad’s work on the Map of Early Modern London project (see sample above).  This is a collaboration between UVic students and students at other universities to create an interactive map of London circa 1561.  Janelle said that the most exciting thing about the project is that “students will make original contributions to the research” and that “faculty learn from students as students are learning from faculty.”  Along with hearing about this valuable online project, we explored Diane’s work with students to digitize and annotate Civil War archives at Bucknell University, and Mary’s efforts to use digital tools to improve the everyday lives of Alzheimer patients.

Butchart Gardens at Night

Butchart Gardens at Night

After the day-long workshops ended, I spent a couple evenings renting a bike and heading along the “Galloping Goose” trail into the spruce, fir, and cedar forests of Victoria.  Sampling the wonderful restaurants and tourist-spot shopping (where my tasteful selections for friends and family included moose boxer shorts, moose t-shirts, moose earrings, moose…well, you get the idea) was also fun.  Butchart Gardens, which I had to see before leaving town, fully lived up to its reputation as one of the best public floral gardens in North America.

Still, despite the manifest delights of the course and the area, as an unknowing newbie, I found myself longing for instruction in some of the basics.

And that’s where the next seminar, “Fostering the Digital Humanities at St. Thomas” (22-25 June 2015) came in handy.  Guest instructors Annie Swafford and Chris Wells (Macalester College) led hands-on sessions for beginners in Digital Humanities.  Chris addressed the question, “how can adding computers to the mix create new opportunities?”  He demonstrated the ways in which computers, in their ability to process huge amounts of data, open up new analytic possibilities:  they allow us to find patterns and relationships that are otherwise difficult to see.  Together, Chris and Annie introduced UST faculty to data visualization tools like Voyant and Google Ngrams; archival platforms like Omeka; GIS (Geographic Information System) and mapping tools from Google Maps, Neatline, and Mapbox.  Several of these tools and additional information on Digital Humanities can be found in the St. Thomas Library Research Guide for DH (http://libguides.stthomas.edu/digital_humanities) and in the “Pedagogy Toolkit” (http://pedagogy-toolkit.org).

Putting the two workshops together was ideal:  the second offered specific guidance for starting small, with individual tools and simple course assignments, while the first offered a “big picture” view of what could be done by scaffolding larger assignments or collaborating with specialists on course/project design.  Both seminars made this relatively new field and its technology more understandable and accessible, showcasing the many good outcomes possible when computer technologies are introduced into the humanities.

Craft-Fairchild172X250Cathy Craft-Fairchild is a professor in the English Department. Although her primary specialty is 18th-century British literature, she also teaches women’s studies, literature and film, Jewish literature, and most recently, a transatlantic course that combines British and American literature. Her current research centers on the writing of Anglo-Irish novelist and educational reformer Maria Edgeworth, while earlier research focused on 18th- and 19th-century women writers more generally, with particular reference to the image and experience of masquerade.

Faculty Teaching, Undergraduate English

From the Kitchen of Julia Child

Julia Child

Last week, my two classes (ENGL 203 Order Up: The Literature of Food) went to dinner at Salut Bar Américain to enjoy “Mondays with Julia” where Salut selects dishes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Fit snugly into three long tables in the Provence Room, we quickly became comfortable with each other as we were served “family style,” requiring us to make sure all were plated before sitting down to sate ourselves.

SalutFoodThe food was mouth-watering and ample, including: salad and French baguettes (which we tore in half to share with our neighbor, dipping into cups of whipped butter), asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, tender green beans with slivers of almond, buttery mashed potatoes, and the pièce de résistance, the coq au vin. The students, stronger and more nimble than myself, deftly lifted and served from giant steaming tureens of chicken nestled in a sauce of wine, carrots, mushrooms, and onions. The dessert, a chocolate mousse accented with fresh blackberries, strawberries, and shortbread, left us in a state that they refer to as a “food coma,” but which I call “bliss.”

While the leftovers were boxed and distributed, I thought of Child’s advice that we had studied earlier: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” I had applied this advice to writing but now saw it fit well with teaching this class—the subject of which I’m far from expert. But the fearlessness paid off as students asked if we could do this again before the end of the semester—in place of finals.

I want to thank Larissa LaMere for organizing this scrumptious event!

Scott-ColorShannon Scott is an adjunct instructor in the English Department. Werewolves, circuses, film noir detectives, and femme fatales–these are the themes of the English courses she teaches. Each class is an exploration of lives lived on the edge of a tightrope or a knife, in the shadows of a sideshow tent or the silhouette of a smoking gun. Her essay “Female Werewolf as Monstrous Other in Honoré Beaugrand’s ‘The Werewolves’” was recently published in She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves (Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2015).

Author Visits, Faculty Teaching, Undergraduate English

The Road Not Taken

In the Fall of 2013, as I considered text selections for my new course The Road Not Taken, the recently published novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger caught my attention. I was struck by the complexity of the characters and the nod to our own Minnesota history. But, I hesitated on committing the novel to my syllabus because it was only available in hardcover and I felt the expense to students was a burden. In the end, I could not deny that the novel was brilliant, beautiful and that it fit surprisingly well with my theme of young people making poor choices with often devastating consequences.

As it turned out, my students never complained about the cost and, in fact, declared that it was their favorite book of the semester. When I told them that Krueger lives right here in St. Paul, my students were astonished and asked that I find a way for them to meet this local author.

WilliamKentKrueger-200pxlAt that time, Krueger was already the author of the wildly successful Cork O’Connor detective series. I was certain that this famous author, whose work is frequently listed on the New York Times bestseller lists, would not have time to visit a local University classroom. But, as he later said to me, “All you had to do was ask.” Sure enough, Kent walked in, sat down and facilitated one of the best class discussions of the semester.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” suggests that in life, there is no right path. There is only the path you choose. Ordinary Grace opens with the mysterious death of young Bobby Cole and the character of Frank as a reflective adult recognizing that he “should have known him better, been a better friend” (Prologue). For Frank, the summer of 1961 becomes a time of heartbreaking loss, misunderstandings, and the painful recognition that there are things we cannot bear, but must accept. Throughout the novel, Frank wonders if the events of that fateful summer could have turned out differently if he had made different choices and, quite literally, taken a different road.

OrdinaryGrace-200pxlKrueger does a remarkable job of describing the agonizing struggles of young adults. Ariel, a talented musician has been accepted to Juilliard, yet inexplicably decides to forgo this opportunity and stay in the small, unsophisticated town of New Bremen, MN. Frank struggles with what he thinks he knows from what might be the ultimate truth about a homeless Native American. Another character struggles with the secret of his sexual orientation. Even the town bully Morris provides an opportunity to recognize that mean-spirited behaviors probably come from a life of loneliness and indifference.

Another intriguing aspect of Kent’s work is the way he weaves Native American Culture into his writing. Although not originally from Minnesota, after he moved here in 1980 he became fascinated with the beauty of the Boundary Waters and the rich Ojibwe culture. In fact, his main character in the Cork O’Conner mystery series is half Irish and half Ojibwe. Ordinary Grace provides an opportunity to speak to the Great Uprising of 1862, a part of Minnesota history that our public schools often either ignore or misrepresent. In the years preceding the uprising, thousands of white immigrants settled in Minnesota. Although the settlers and Native Americans appeared to co-exist peacefully, the truth is that the Native people had their land taken, game poached and, in the summer of 1862, their annual annuity payment was inexplicably delayed by Congress. The Sioux launched a brief rebellion against the white settlers in Southwestern Minnesota and nearly a thousand settlers were brutally killed. For generations, the story of this uprising has been skewed to put blame on the Sioux tribes, although their people were in fact starving and dying from malnutrition and disease. On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Sioux braves were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In Ordinary Grace, the misunderstood character of Warren Redstone opens the door for discussion about the prejudice and overall unfair representation of our Native Minnesota people.

"Battle of New Ulm" (1904), Anton Gag

“Battle of New Ulm” (1904), Anton Gag

In the spring of 2014, Ordinary Grace won the prestigious Edgar Award for the best mystery novel. It is recognized as a classic work of literature with a suspenseful plot, poignant characters, and beautifully written prose. Teachers will find that there are many ways to approach this novel, only a few of which I have listed here. The story truly does explore “The Road Not Taken,” and yet in the words of Robert Frost we recognize that we cannot go back and choose the other road, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back” (14-15).  Frost affirms that we only have one chance to choose our road in life.

With a stunning, award-winning novel and his humble, down-to-earth personality, William Kent Krueger has become a highly sought- after speaker. This month, we are privileged to have him visit our campus and address a larger audience. Krueger will read from Ordinary Grace and participate in an audience Q & A.  A book signing will follow this event.  Please join us for a memorable evening with a man who genuinely enjoys engaging his readers.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” You Come Too.  New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 2002.

Hofmeister-New

Jeannie Hofmeister is an adjunct professor in the English Department. She is primarily interested in 19th-and 20th-Century American Literature and regularly uses work from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath in her classes.

Faculty Research, Mindfulness and Contemplation

A University that Breathes

Two years ago, if you had invited me to spend an hour meditating on the quad I would have laughed in disbelief. “I’m a doer, not a sitter,” I’d have said. No time for that touchy-feely stuff.

And yet last September, there I sat cross-legged by the fountain, breathing in a spectacular fall day along with a crowd of other faculty, students and staff. And doing nothing but breathing. For an hour.

What happened?

The Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation happened. In July 2013, on an impulse, I signed up for the week-long faculty development workshop on mindfulness led by Bill Brendel and Vanessa Cornett-Murtada. As it turns out, that workshop was just the beginning of a movement that has quickly spread throughout campus.

But back in July 2013 I knew zero about mindfulness – less than zero, if you factor in my fundamental opposition to sitting still.

That first day I was definitely out of my comfort zone. Bill asked why we were there and everyone gave very productive-sounding answers. Popping on my director of Writing Across the Curriculum hat, I said something about discovering connections between mindfulness and writing pedagogy. Then Bill asked, “And why are you really here?” and we gave slightly less production-oriented answers, and he again asked, “But why, really?”

In the end, I just had to admit I was there because I personally wanted a break from the running-around stress of my life.

Breathe-by-SjengravingBefore long we were all just sitting there breathing. Bill hooked me with his invitational words: “You don’t have to be anywhere but here; you don’t have to do anything but this.” They were followed by long sessions of just sitting and being in the present moment. At first I occasionally peeked in fascination at my colleagues, people I am used to seeing very much in action now sitting like statues. But soon I settled in and a 45-minute session whisked by, leaving me wanting more.

In short, I discovered that if anyone asks me to just sit still and do nothing but breathe for any length of time, I will gladly do it.

At the end of the workshop we all had to commit to one way we would bring mindfulness to our teaching. My colleagues came up with all sorts of interesting activities, but being such a newbie, I leaned toward the simple: I’d meditate with my students for one minute at the start of class each day.

That was July. As September approached, I started getting nervous. Sure, I found mindful breathing incredibly refreshing, but would my students think I was off my rocker?

Luckily, my paired course partner that semester was Sherry Jordon, associate professor of theology, an old hand at meditation. When I told her about the fix I’d gotten myself into, she said she would do it with our group, too, so that I wouldn’t seem like such an oddball. Between our two classes, our students meditated five days a week that semester.

And so began the practice of starting my classes with meditation. We would usually begin with one minute, but before long the students would ask for more time, and then more again. By the end of the semester we’d be up to two or three minutes. I think some of them would have preferred to spend the whole class time meditating!

This past semester, I asked my students to fill out an anonymous survey on their experiences with in-class meditation. On a scale of 1 (“Terrible: I hope this never happens in any of my future classes”) to 5 (“Terrific: I hope this happens in many/all of my future classes”), 13 out of 17 students gave it a 5, with three 4’s and one 3. The main issue for my stressed-out, sleep-deprived students was fear of dozing off while meditating. Other than that, they included multiple comments about how starting with meditation helps them to focus in class. As one wrote, “AMAZING! If I truly sit here and relax, I find that I am more engaged in conversation and relaxed in class … I find my mind is fixed on the task at hand.”

Here are a few responses to my request for metaphors to describe their experiences:

  • “Slowly letting the air out of a very full balloon.”
  • “Changing an outfit. When I came into the room I was wearing an outfit of stress and distraction. Meditation made me change into a more calm, non-distracted outfit. That was the outfit I wore for the rest of the class which amplified my experience of the class.”
  • “A river. It gives me a chance to let my thoughts flow through me instead of damming them up or trying to divert them somewhere else.”
  • “It is like working out. The more you do it the longer it takes to get winded, the stronger you are, and the more you want to spend expanding on it.”
  • “When the sun fills me up with Vitamin D.”

Like my students, I’ve come to depend on our meditation time to relax and focus at the start of class. It helps me to let go of the past (that sticky meeting I just attended) and the future (that knotty administrative problem I need to solve), and simply breathe in the present moment. I can’t imagine not starting a class with mindful breathing beginning with the words, “You don’t need to be anywhere but here; you don’t need to do anything but this.”

meditation700-2

I’ve also learned that at this point in my life, solo mediation does not work for me. Last semester I tried meditating in my office for just one minute after arriving to work each day; the experiment was an utter failure. I’m just too easily distracted when I’m not accountable to others for staying put. Luckily the PMC offers free weekly meditation sessions in the Wellness Center for people who, like me, are social meditators.

As if that weren’t enough, I’ve actively begun to embed opportunities to meditate with others into various corners of my life: a group at my church, the faculty writing retreats and English Department meetings.

My reach only extends so far, but through the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation I’ve learned that the ranks of meditators at St. Thomas are many and our number continues to grow. So what’s next? What if every class included a minute or two of mindful breathing? What about every meeting: including those with students, faculty, staff, administrators … the Board of Trustees?

What if St. Thomas becomes a university that breathes?

Studio portrait of Associate Professor of English Erika Scheurer. Taken October 7, 2014

Erika Scheurer is a professor in the English Department and the director of the St. Thomas Writing Across the Curriculum program. Her research interests include writing theory and pedagogy as well as the work of the poet Emily Dickinson

Faculty Research, Mindfulness and Contemplation

The Blessing of a Sabbatical

The blessing of a sabbatical, at least as I always understood it, was something limited pretty much to college teachers. That is to say a sabbatical is that period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year. Little did I know! The corporate world (at least pockets of it) now offers sabbaticals. To find out how the corporate world does it, take a look at YourSabbatical.com. That site has a top 100 list of sabbatical ideas, such as “Circuit Iceland by car, Tackle Kilimanjaro, … Trap and track puma in Argentina’s pampas grass, Raft the Zambezi with your dad.” Hhmmm! Well, intriguing ideas I suppose but that’s not what I undertook.

Being a language fiend I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of the roots of “sabbatical,” a word derived from “Shabbat.” Shabbat comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. In other words, a sabbatical is a gift of time when we can set aside all of our routine concerns and devote ourselves to discovery and enrichment. My time of discovery and enrichment involved research, of course, a spiritual retreat, and being a student in a creative writing class.

Pacem in Terris is a retreat center following the thread of Franciscan spirituality. That’s where I went for my retreat. Look for it in the Isanti area.

Warren2Warren3 Each retreatant has her or his own hermitage so solitude is the first gift that’s received. The hermitages are scattered throughout the woods that belong to the retreat center. Lots of good walking through the woods and to Lake Tamarack which is not far away at all. A favorite memory is sitting in the early evening at the end of the dock, looking out over the lake, watching the trumpeter swans and listening to their calls as the snow floated down; then scurrying through the woods to my hermitage before darkness fell. The solitude, the freedom from all devices electronic, were healing and nourishing; a real sabbath. Try it!

Warren1The main thrust of my sabbatical was to create (a) a modern English translation of, and (b) an edition of Patience, a Middle English alliterative poem from the late 14th century. The poem is one of four found in the same manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. and is often written about as a poem in homiletic style. Inevitably, this research led to a trip to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s in Collegeville, MN. The HMML project was born in 1965 in response to the loss of manuscripts and books in European libraries during World War II especially. HMML’s mission is to identify, digitally photograph, catalog, archive and preserve the contents of manuscripts, especially manuscripts from threatened communities. To whet your appetite for a visit check out HMML’s Newsletter.

Back to my project! The translation of Patience is complete though I’m still playing round with imitating the poem’s alliterative style. That truly is fun. I know I’ve always liked the poet of Patience (especially because of the poet’s other works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl) but after these months of study I am impressed by the poet’s canniness. There’s more to this poet than meets the eye and definitely much more to the poem itself. My ideas of this poem’s thrust and its intended audience have changed and that ultimately affects the construction of the edition itself. In the meantime during the sabbatical, another project I was working on (parrhesia and mysticism) came to completion.

And the creative writing class I mentioned? Hard work and bliss! “Writing muscles” that hadn’t been exercised for quite some time came to a rude awakening. Will you see what I created in that class? I don’t think so! Another creative writing class is in order!

Marty Warren is an associate professor of the English department. His interests are medieval literature, science fiction, and the intersection of spirituality and literature.