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“THE NIX” Book Review

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Nathan Hill, Associate Professor of English and author of The Nix.

The highly anticipated debut novel from St. Thomas Associate Professor of English Nathan Hill, The Nix, is officially released today, August 30th. Selected as one of six hot titles for autumn at BookExpo America, The Nix has received starred book reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and has been listed as a “must read” title by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, Huffington Post, Bookish, The Master’s Reviewand Gear Patrol, as well as by the Strand Bookstore in New York City. International publication will follow in more than a dozen languages. Nathan will give a talk about The Nix, at St. Thomas on October 11th. See our events page for more information!

Rachel Busse, alumna of the St. Thomas English Department and current graduate student, received an advance reader copy and was kind enough to write a review of the book, along with some of her memories of Nathan as a professor. Be sure to pick up your copy today, and let us know what you think in the comments!


nathan review pic option 2Like many students in the UST English Department, I had mixed feelings when I heard that Nathan Hill wouldn’t be returning to teach for my senior year. Nathan was one of the best professors and advisors that I’d met—he was an invaluable guide through the ins and outs of both the publishing industry and the art of writing creatively. It was with his help that I was able to edit and design for the 2015 edition of the Summit Avenue Review, land a summer internship with Graywolf Press, and tend to the roots of a budding writing voice. So for Nathan I was—and will always be—incredibly grateful. Put simply: I was sad to see him go.

But there was a bit of a silver lining—Nathan’s departure meant that we’d eventually get the chance to see what sort of a project would become his full time gig. And see we will, with his debut novel The Nix, which is set to be released at the end of this month. For many of us, this is a long anticipated release; after Nathan came to visit last spring, the entire department was positively humming. The exact magnitude of this buzz became blatantly clear when Nathan was able to fill an entire lecture room on a warm Friday afternoon. As a community, we knew there would be hype around the book, and we were really, sincerely hoping that it would live up to it.

I have to report that it absolutely does. The Nix is stunning, and it’s so gorgeously expansive that it’s hard to even know where the praise should start. For one, it’s a brilliant story—my copy is now ragged due to how hungrily I dug into it, bringing it with me everywhere and tearing in whenever possible. It’s a delicious read.

Even attempting to describe the plot feels reductive. In many ways, it’s about a mother and a son. But it’s also about the mess of media and politics that we see around election times. It’s about protests of all different types—both historical and modern, and in both cases it examines the intimate motivations of the protestors themselves. It’s about video games also about the modern blur between online and “real life”, the very real mental, emotional, and even physical costs and appeals of fantasy, and the ultimate nature of obsession. It’s about the Midwest: it covers little towns full of industry and but lacking in opportunity alongside Chicago and its endlessly sprawling suburbs with equal precision. It’s about being a crybaby, an aggressive middle schooler, a child prodigy, a college plagiarizer, a factory worker, an activist, and yes, a college English professor.

But perhaps The Nix succeeds most by making the reader crave each of these stories equally—with every perspective shift and break in time, I was ravenous to catch up with a character I’d been missing while still reeling from being ripped from the last. Structurally, the book would give the best spider web a run for its money—it is as elegant, sturdy, and well composed as they come. Each element feels delicately and artfully connected while simultaneously resisting the trap of tying up everything up in a tidy, convenient bow. That is a major feat for a book that is 600+ pages long.

Nathan uses that space wisely. It is the type of deeply satisfying book that I loved glutting myself on for a weekend—in those 600 or so pages, there is space for a chapter told in logical fallacies, a bit of Choose Your Own Adventure, and a stream of consciousness sentence that spans an entire chapter. This is all earned; Nathan artfully carves out room for poetry, parody, humor, and ultimate honesty. Part of the reason The Nix is such a slamming success is that it engages with modernity in a way that isn’t overly judgmental—it feels like a candid portrayal of who we are now and how we came to be. Every character is treated with attention and exactitude that makes each story feel real and dear. So yes, the book takes up space, but if anything should demand 600 or so pages of attention, it’s a story like this. Smart, funny, and earnest, The Nix induces empathy in a way we could all use more of.

Ultimately, this book is so rich, so seamless, and so well connected that it inspires. This is the type of book that makes you want to do nothing but write—the type of book that is so full and hearty that it makes you believe someday you could do it too. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that just about that best gift a creative writing professor could give?

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. 

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 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.”

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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.