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Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

Grace Under Pressure – an Essay on Letting Go

Rachel Busse, alumna of the St. Thomas English Department and current graduate student, traveled to Havana, Cuba, this January on a Graduate Research Grant. Rachel was researching Ernest Hemingway, who spent nearly 30 years in Cuba.

Rachel in front of Hemingway’s Finca Vigía just outside Havana, Cuba.

I am a planner. I am an itinerary-making, checklist-having, research-doing goody-goody. In the eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Washington, D.C. and filled an entire binder with background research as though we didn’t already have an extensive schedule. Before I went to my first coffee shop (2007, Caribou, Rosemount, MN) I studied the menu online to ensure I’d be able to order a campfire cooler with grace and gravitas. I still get disappointed when a restaurant doesn’t put their menu online and I relish Yelp posts that include photographic clues to the layout of a place. This is a form of sleuthing, and if I had another life to live I’d likely join the ranks of Philip Marlowe or Nancy Drew.

This is not to say I am always organized (for I am often far from it) but rather that I like to be prepared. Information is power, and I rarely find good reason to concede control or clout. So I hoard facts and plans like knickknacks that might come in handy one day—my mind can best be likened to my grandmother’s cluttered basement.

Hemingway’s bedroom at Finca Vigía.

This is all well and good until it isn’t. That is, until planning becomes unreasonable, irresponsible, or even impossible. This worked, I mean to say, until I traveled to Cuba. I went to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigía, which is just outside of Havana. He lived there for nearly a third of his life, and I wanted to find out why. I was able to make this trip thanks to a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas English department, but it was a quick turnaround. I submitted a proposal at the end of November, found out I’d been awarded the grant in early December, and a month later I was in Havana for a week, accompanied by my friend Margaret. This was the first trip I’d taken where I had next to no concept for what to expect. I knew about as much as to expect cigars, classic cars, and maybe a beach—but the idea of hitting a country’s highlights and retiring to a resort at night is way too voyeuristic for my tastes. I wanted to do this responsibly, and for that, I needed details, or so I thought.

For starters, American travel to Cuba was only recently made accessible; President Obama was the first sitting president to visit Cuba in over 90 years when he and his family went last year, and there wasn’t even a US embassy in Cuba until 2015. Restrictions on travel to Cuba were loosened under the Obama administration, but before that, American travel in Cuba had been banned since 1963. This restriction was older than my parents.

The internet wasn’t much help. There was plenty of advice out there from intrepid Americans who had visited illegally by traveling through Mexico or Canada, but like I said, I’m not much of a rule-breaker. Because the restrictions on legal travel were loosened so recently, there was a fair amount of conflicting information even from official sources. We were essentially watching these changes be implemented in real time, which meant that questions about how to get a visa, what kind we needed, and whether we were required to prove the nature of our travel were all hard to answer. As it turns out, you self-certify; this is frustratingly vague, but it means you pick one of the 12 approved reasons for travel, you create an itinerary (which not a single person asked us for), and you buy a tourist visa in the airport before your flight. That’s it. And if you’re me, you also spend hours checking and double checking that it’s really that easy.

Rachel with Hemingway’s Pilar (fishing boat)

And that’s just getting there. When it comes to how you’ll spend your time once you’re past customs, all the research has to come before you leave the US. While websites like TripAdvisor do have a fair amount of information, there’s no guarantee of their accuracy, as most places in Cuba do not keep an active web presence. Within Cuba, internet access is extremely limited and pricey as all get out; once you’re there, navigating Havana can feel a bit like learning to swim while you’re already in the pool. Sink or swim, sink or swim.

When we hopped off the plane, our first concern was finding our homestay, or casa particular. Our casa, owned by a woman named Mónica with her mother Aida, was in a neighborhood called Vedado, just west of Habana Viejo, or Old Havana. This meant our actual first priority was exchanging money in order to pay for a cab—another snag of the recently relaxed regulations is that American cards don’t work in ATMs (or anywhere, for that matter). You have to come holding all that money you might need in cash and exchange it there. This is stressful. Plus, we were tired—we’d gotten to our hotel in Miami after a long drive back from Key West at 1:30 am and left for the airport at 6:00 am. We spent a while after landing wandering wide-eyed through this airport until we got up the courage to ask for a taxi. We requested the driver take us to one of the few places we could remember that was near our neighborhood: Plaza de la Revolución.

Rachel’s friend Margaret standing in Plaza de la Revolución.

As it turns out, Plaza de la Revolución is an odd place to be dropped off coming from the airport. We imagined something highly-walkable, but what we got was essentially a big parking lot in between two government buildings (adorned with Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos), a huge monument to José Martí, and four lanes of traffic. Suffice to say, we looked naive bringing our luggage there.

Havana was not the sort of place I fell in love with fast. The city is loud and sputtering with rumbling old engines all peppered with honking horns. The hot, wet air is laced thick with exhaust and the alternating smells of trash and traffic. Our first venture out of the casa was both confusing and unsettling, which is funny considering we went for ice cream from the famous Coppelia. This visit involved being ushered by a security guard into a dingy upper-room specifically for convertible-peso carrying turistas, where we were served icy ice cream by a man with a coke nail.

But if there is one trait I have that’s stronger than my propensity to panic, it’s stubbornness. I hate admitting defeat, so even if it means white-knuckling, I hold on. This persistence—to which Margaret is also a subscriber—payed off. After Coppelia, we ended up wandering the idyllic University of Havana campus and enjoying a long lunch of dados a la piña and cervezas nacionales. After climbing a steep spiral staircase, we sat out on the restaurant’s bright blue balcony and looked out at the busy street. On this block, and so many others we walked that week, some buildings crumbled while others received fresh, pastel paint jobs. Savvy stray dogs ran loose, narrowly avoiding the steady stream of cars. We watched for tourists, placing bets on where each group was from. My fondness for this place was earned and learned, a slow and sustained burn I didn’t anticipate. That afternoon was one of starting sparks.

I went to Cuba primarily to see Hemingway’s home, which I took to mean not only his house, but the city too. I’d heard it claimed that Havana is “frozen in time,” and though I wasn’t naïve enough to really expect that, there is something alluring about the idea of a paused history. So much of what we do as readers and researchers is to try to understand the past, especially when it surrounds our favorite writers. There were parts of Havana that did feel out of a time capsule where it was easy to imagine Hemingway wandering on a steamy Havana afternoon, like the National Museum of Fine Arts or in in one of the many European-style squares. And of course Hemingway’s ghost lingers still in his favorite bars—La Bodeguita del Medio and La Foridita—where his favorite drinks—the mojito and the daiquiri, respectively—are still served as they would have been in the 1950s.

But these are places that exist specifically to preserve that time period, and to suggest Havana has remained unchanged erases the long and hugely significant history of Revolution in Cuba, which happened just around the time Hemingway left the city for the last time. The glamour of 1940s and 50s Havana still exists, but is rarely left untouched by evidence of revolution. One of the few grocery stores we found (with a queueing system left over from the days of rationing) had tiles at the entryway announcing it was once a Woolworths. An evening walk through Havana’s Chinatown (which has noticeably few Chinese people, as most left around the time of the revolution) featured a peek into the now-decrepit but once-elegant five-story Fin de Siglo department store. The Habana Libre hotel is perhaps one of the best examples of the faded glitz of the past—this huge hotel was opened as a modern, chic Hilton in 1958 and was the largest and tallest hotel in Latin America at the time. After the revolution in ’59, the Cuban government took control of the hotel, and the entire top floor was converted into Fidel Castro’s headquarters. The physical history of revolution in Cuba is also visible on the walls of the Museum of the Revolution. Housed in what was once the presidential palace, this lavish building is now scarred with bullet holes from the ousting of Batista. The place is full of propaganda, and it’s fascinating to see how the Cuban government tells its own story.

Hemingway’s connection with Castro is often wondered about, but was by most accounts relatively unsubstantial—the famous picture of the two together, taken at a fishing tournament held in Hemingway’s honor, depicts what was likely their most extensive interaction. Hemingway was against the Batista regime, and is believed to have been sympathetic to Castro’s calls for change. But Hemingway died before his allegiances were ever really clarified.

Regardless of his opinions on Castro or any of the other revolutionaries, Hemingway loved Cuba—he spent more time there than anywhere else in his short but well-traveled life. He considered Cuba his home, and even kept a bust of José Martí, the “apostle of Cuban independence” in his writing studio at Finca Vigía. For the record, I looked for one of my own, but instead found only a myriad of Che t-shirts, which I declined to buy.

Hemingway’s writing studio at Finca Vigía

The aforementioned writing studio is one of the few places at Hemingway’s home where you can see all the way to the city, as the home is about 15 km outside of Central Havana. It takes about 20 minutes to drive out by car; we took the bus back which took a while longer but allowed us to see the route more slowly. Both there and back, we snaked our way out through a more industrial cityscape than we’d previously seen and into busy suburbs. But Finca Vigía, which means lookout farm, is set up in the hills and away from the sounds and smog of the city. It is easy to imagine this as a place for a writer to come after spending time ambling around the comparatively chaotic Havana.

You can’t actually go into the house, but all the doors and windows are open to peer through, and in a way, that feels right. The house is stately but not excessively large, and seems like the sort of place you’d want to keep the windows open, at least through the cooler winter months. Every room had a window, even the closet where Hemingway’s war correspondent uniform was hanging. The ceilings are high and open, leaving plenty of room for the tall bookshelves that line almost every room, including the bathroom. This monstrous collection has simply been sitting there since Hemingway left in 1960, and aside from some digital cataloging done by researchers from Boston, they are untouched. There are also magazine, newspapers, literary journals like The Dial, and an impressive collection of records. All this media seems like a natural accumulation for someone so steeped in the arts, and it feels, for lack of a better word, homey. Down to the daily weight records Hemingway kept on the bathroom wall, this feels like a very personal place designed for those who lived there. This is not to say it isn’t stylish, but rather that there is a lived-in elegance to the place. The more public rooms—the dining room and the living room, for example—are a bit heavier on the taxidermy-reliant design that shows up throughout the house.  But the furnishings are generally less flashy that you might expect, given that Hemingway was a celebrity with many famous friends. This understated beauty is not at all unlike the prose Hemingway is so famous for.

Hemingway’s library at Finca Vigía

We spent several hours wandering the grounds, seeing every nook and cranny of the house we could while being sure not to miss the large pool (where Ava Gardner reportedly swam nude), Hemingway’s famous Pilar (his beloved fishing boat) and the cemetery for his dogs (Black, Negrita, Neron, and Linda). This pastoral setting is such a stark contrast to the heart of Havana, where there is little nature to be found unless you’re walking along the Malecón, the wall that separates Havana from the sea—it’s a local favorite, and a good place to drink rum with friends at night.

But Hemingway loved the city, too. He lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, in Habana Vieja, for about a year before moving to Finca Vigía. The hotel features one of the best views of the city from its rooftop and is in walking distance from both of his favorite bars. Though we enjoyed Hemingway’s haunts, we found our own favorites, too—our most frequented destination was the Museo Del Chocolate, which sells simultaneously rich and refreshing chocolate milk for the low low price of one dollar. I think we went four times. It made up for Coppelia.

Rachel (right) and Margaret at the ballet

Little things began to flower up and bloom for us. We got to go to the ballet, which is Cuba’s most renowned arts organization. It was The Nutcracker—or Cascanueces, if you prefer—and we sat next to the proud father of a little girl performing in the children’s choir (I cried). We spent a pleasantly humid evening on the terrace of our casa, leafing through outdated guidebooks we found on the bookshelf and sipping pineapple soda. But more broadly, we surprised ourselves with adaptability, and I am proud of our ability to walk the city with a confidence we didn’t bring with us. For the record, Havana is the type of place you walk almost everywhere to avoid paying for cabs—we walked 15 miles on our last day there. And when it did come time to pay for taxis, we got pretty good at negotiating fares in Spanish, which is something I’m not even comfortable doing in English.

Hemingway famously said that “courage is grace under pressure.” For a long time, I liked how that sounded but didn’t feel I’d really had an opportunity to test it out—I’ve almost always got a safety net, and it’s usually pretty sturdy. Cuba is a safe place, so we were never really too worried, but there were always more questions than there were answers. We had to learn to do things a lo Cubano, to handle the unexpected with grace and patience. And at the end of the day, there was something kind of magical about going in with very few expectations and letting the city click for us. This can come in finally feeling like you don’t need to bury your face in a map, successfully chatting with some local people in the museum, or even over the best glass of chocolate milk you’ve ever had. This click lets you sink in and feel your surroundings with confidence and courage, if only for a moment or two. I’d never advocate skipping your due diligence—basic research is important and responsible—but going in to fulfill all the expectations you came with seems irresponsible in its own right. No one likes a box-checker. At the end of the day, we saw Havana through pseudo-journalistic eyes, hungry to learn and keeping our cool along the way—a bit, we hope, like Hemingway.

Graduate English, Student Careers, Student Research, The Value of English

Vatnajökull

Katelyn Brunner is finishing her first semester as a graduate student. This fall she traveled to Iceland to pursue an interest that might cause you  pause when you think about English students: Geology. Because of the interest shown by her fellow classmates, Katelyn welcomed the opportunity to write about this “sweetheart infatuation” for our blog. When not in school or hiking atop glaciers, Katelyn is a copy editor for an ad agency that does work for veterinary/production animal companies.


unknownGeology is a complex, fundamental science that most people take for granted, which is a shame. The deep ocean’s thermal vents, the kaleidoscope in a granite countertop, stratification-stripes on the inside of mountains sliced to make room for highways– all of that beauty is proof that our Earth is not a given, it’s a gift.

My stupid, sweetheart infatuation with the planet is the reason I went to Iceland. It is one of the most extreme places in the world for the Earth sciences– glaciers rest on top of volcanoes and islands rise up out of the sea. Lava fields are covered with moss and the sand is charcoal-black. Everything is big and elemental and a girl in clunky hiking boots feels very small in comparison. It’s not that so many things happened during my trip there– it’s just that Iceland happened to me. But I don’t want to talk about all that.

I want to talk about a glacier.

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I planned my trip around a three-day excursion that included hiking, staying in void-dark villages overnight, and clamping spikes onto our boots so we didn’t fall into an ice cave– literally. Some of the hiking and not-falling was done on top of a glacier called Vatnajökull. The day of the hike, our group of five was driven a few hours to a small, steel cabin to meet our “glacier guides,” all of whom look exactly like you’d expect. After signing my life away and being grilled about my epilepsy, I was allowed near the cramp-ons, pickaxes, and fun little harnesses whose lime-green nylon clashed horribly with my borrowed, hunter’s-orange pants.

The intimate experience that was my harness-fitting rivaled the TSA screening that I once received for committing the cardinal sin of airplane travel: forgetting my ID. Just like that uncomfortable Thanksgiving day, I was subjected to what amounted to little more than a pleasureless groping. Luckily, my fit, blonde “glacier guide” was the nicest woman in the world, if a bit intimidating. Just one of her defined muscles would probably be assigned a better high school superlative than I had.

picture3I was soon released to one of those huge, shiny buses that have impossibly large windows. The bus driver, a kind of lumberjack Santa who smelled like roast beef, pulled away from the cabin with his charges, and switched on the radio to what can only be described as the most offensive elevator music on Earth. The entire, hour-long trek across a landscape clearly not meant for buses, was filled with the sound of “improvised” jazz and clinking hiking equipment. We passed the outwash plain they filmed parts of the last Star Wars movie on and marveled at how like an earlobe the glacier looked, seeping out into its little lagoon. We saw the highest peak in Iceland and it didn’t look very tall until we were right up against it, jumping every so often at each creak and crash courtesy of the ice fall at its base.

We were briefed on how to behave ourselves on Vatnajökull. What I got from the talk was this: when stepping down, don’t point your toes straight forward, stomp so hard you’re sore tomorrow, and don’t feed the ravens; they will chase you. With those wise words, we began to climb.

It’s not enough just to describe the glacier, though it’s tempting. I could mention deep, blue crevasses that seemed very sinister, scalloped edges of melting ice, and the two ravens with gasoline-sheen feathers. But the most interesting thing about the experience was less the beauty of the place– after all, this was day six of a beautiful picture2trip– but the swelling-heart feeling I got when I stepped foot on the ice. I was finally there, finally with the thing I’d studied, presented on, and wrote about during my years in undergrad. Glaciers move and speak and, over time, slice through the landscape like wire through soft cheese. They, like minerals and the ocean’s currents, prove our Earth is alive. And my love for it proves I am, too.

Conference Travel, Student Research, Undergraduate English

Rediscovering Constance Wilde

grandmas-story

Grandma’s Story

Last fall, I undertook an independent study on the works of Oscar Wilde with Dr. Alexis Easley. When we began to study his fairy tales, I realized for the first time that one of them, “The Selfish Giant,” was one of my favorite childhood stories that my dad used to read to me. Intrigued, I researched these fairy tales further and discovered one of his wife’s fairy tale collections, There Was Once! Grandma’s Stories, a beautifully illustrated book that included five fairy tales and four nursery rhymes. Basic research revealed that Constance Wilde was a writer, editor, and public speaker who was an important voice in late nineteenth-century Britain, and as I learned more about her, I realized her work had been buried for over one hundred years. I knew that I needed to find out more about her.

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A Long Time Ago – Favourite Stories Retold by Mrs. Oscar Wilde and Others

During this last spring semester, Dr. Easley and I began the application process for the Luann Dummer Center for Women Undergraduate Fellowship Grant opportunity. Constance Wilde’s works have been out of print since she was first published in the late nineteenth century, so part of my application requested funding to travel to London in order to research her works at the British Library. Needless to say, we were ecstatic when I was informed that, out of all the possible applicants, we were awarded the grant. This trip to London was quite possibly my favorite part of the project. In the midst of traveling through the underground train system, getting lost for hours in the British Library pouring over books, letters, and documents from the nineteenth century, I discovered her amazing work for the Rational Dress Society, where she was the lead editor for the Society’s Gazette from April of 1888 to July 1889. Her work centered on the idea of healthy and sensible dress for young girls and women without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of fashion. As editor, Constance Wilde’s work was crucial in getting the necessary health information out to women in order to encourage them to take charge of both their own and their children’s health, especially relating to their habits of dress.

One of the exciting opportunities I have had with this project so far was a presentation of my first research paper on Constance Wilde, focusing on her journalistic career with the Rational Dress Society, at the Streamlines Undergraduate English Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. The conference was a fantastic experience! Presentations were given by students from all over the United States, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. I also loved the opportunity to share my own research and to hear what questions people had about it. The unique quality of this particular conference is the wide variety of topics students can present on, such as creative writing (fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction), presentations on films, literary theory, the classics, global issues, identity, women in literature, and even one on handwriting in our culture. It was intellectually rich with all of these topics and more!introduction

Since my paper had to do with a female writer, I was placed in a panel that focused on the subject of women in literature. The other students in my panel had fascinating and excellent papers and it was intriguing to see that all of our papers tied together without our realizing or planning it. After we had all presented our papers, one of the audience members brought that to our attention, and it sparked a fantastic discussion that went in multiple directions. It was an incredible day, as the faculty, students, and everyone listening to the panels were supportive and interested in the work we were sharing. It was truly a worthwhile experience, and I hope to attend the conference again in the future simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

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Jack and the Beanstalk

The next step for my research on Constance Wilde will be an article on her collections of fairy tales, which I will be submitting this upcoming May to the International English Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta. In the introduction to one of her collections, There Was Once! Grandma’s Stories, Constance Wilde tells children the story about the way these fairy tales were handed down to her orally by her grandmother. Through this, she draws attention to the importance of women’s relationships in the storytelling tradition. She highlights this process of transmission, honoring her foremother and making her own contribution to the retelling of these classic tales. One of my greatest hopes in carrying out this research project is to shine light on Constance Wilde’s work, highlighting her authorial achievements with more precision and promoting greater understanding of who she truly was – a unique and important writer of the late Victorian era.

 

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Meaghan Scott is a senior majoring in English. Two of her favorite literary eras are the Medieval and Victorian, and some of the authors she’s especially enjoyed studying are Dante, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Constance Wilde, just to name a few. However, she also loves fantasy literature in general, especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who she will be studying in Dr. Martin Warren’s Tolkien: Middle Earth/Middle Ages class. She is currently applying to graduate English programs in Ireland and Minnesota in order to continue her studies in English Literature.

Conference Travel, Student Research, Undergraduate English

My Streamlines Conference Presentation of “Notes on Emptiness”

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to present a paper I wrote at the Streamlines Undergraduate Language and Literature Conference in Dubuque, Iowa.streamlines_program_2016 The conference took place on Saturday, November 5th, though for me it began weeks earlier with the nerve-wracking process of submitting my paper. I stand by my opinion that nothing — not even presenting — compares to the anxiety of the submission process. The whole thing consists of sending off what I truly believe to be my best work to someone I don’t know, so that it can be judged against standards I haven’t been acquainted with. That’s enough to make most people question whether or not their paper is good enough in the first place, and believe me, I am most people.

Nothing in that moment seems to reassure me that something I wrote could, in fact, be good enough to be presented, published, or otherwise recognized as real writing. Chalk it up to me being a young writer without many rejections to roughen me up, or to being too shy about sharing my work, or whatever else you want. I suspect that at any age or stage of writing, reassurance about the quality of one’s work isn’t what a writer needs. It’s probably more important to cultivate an air of indifference toward judgement out of genuine affection for your work. That, or to have the voices of feminist writers like Dunham, Gay, and Kaling whispering in your ear, telling you to smash that submit button with confidence (I fell back on this latter option).

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My paper incorporated a number of works from this anthology, including Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Rousseau’s Confessions, and inspiration from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Fast forward to November 5th. I had made it through the submission process, and my paper, “Notes on Emptiness,” had been accepted to the Streamlines Conference. I had edited, practiced, and practiced some more. The final draft was mixture of literary analysis of the book Madame Bovary, personal memoir, philosophical musings, and quotes on emptiness from literature. Because it’s such a thorough mix of styles and concepts, I would have been surprised no matter which category they put me into. I ended up on the creative non-fiction panel along with four other students from schools across the Midwest, feeling like I was going to crush it with an unconventional nonfiction paper.

The presentation itself was exhilarating. As I explained my paper and started reading, I had the thrilling feeling that my audience was hooked. They laughed when I wanted them to laugh, shifted in their chairs and chuckled uncomfortably when I expected them to feel awkward, and nodded along as I drove home my argument. It was a rare opportunity to see people react to my writing in real time. I loved every minute of it, feeling like I possessed a superpower to control people’s emotions, simply by sitting at the front of a room and speaking.

I also got to listen to the papers of the other four people on my presentation panel. Dr. Miller once said to my Writing Poetry class last spring that you should always go to readings because you’ll either leave filled with admiration and a desire to write as well as them, or with the impression that it wasn’t that great and you can do better than them, and either way you’ll want to go home and write. I don’t think I need to clarify that I experienced the former reaction upon hearing the papers of other students. Not only did I leave feeling energized and excited about writing, I felt honored to be included in a group of such excellent writers.

The question and answer session at the end of my reading rivaled the actual presentation for my favorite part of the day. Both students and professors, genuinely curious to know more about my writing, asked thoughtful questions about my themes, processes, and drives. Discussing my own work is something that I’ve had little experience with, and it was a treat to be able to talk about it and hone those skills I rarely get the opportunity to practice.

No other experience has validated my work more than this presentation. I left the conference feeling like a legitimate writer, and had the whole four and a half hour drive home from Dubuque to contemplate the experiences that will bring me to my next destination as a writer.

graffunder300Hayley Graffunder is a junior with a double major in Linguistics and English with a creative writing emphasis. She looks forward to studying abroad in Scotland this spring at the University of Edinburgh and will be writing for Arcadia University as a student blogger while she is away.

Conference Travel, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

Research Grant for “Paradise Lost”

Each year the graduate program awards at least one $1,000 research grant to support student research. This summer, graduate student Mark Van Dusseldorp traveled to San Marino, California, to visit the Huntington Library to research John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mark was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience. Mark graduated this summer with a Master’s Essay titled “The Suburbs of Eternity: Dreaming in Paradise Lost.”

Paradise LostAs the story goes, a friend and student of John Milton’s named Thomas Ellwood made a visit to the poet and read the manuscript of Paradise Lost, after which he said: “Thou hast said much of Paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?” Some attribute Ellwood’s question as the inspiration for Milton’s brief epic Paradise Regained. Whether a factual anecdote or not, it’s a nice story, and I thought of this and Milton’s Eden as I walked around the 120 acres of garden at the Huntington library in San Marino, California, completely alone.

I arrived at the Huntington on a Tuesday, the day the grounds are closed to the public, so before I began days of research in a windowless room I took my “solitary way” through the twelve gardens, a lush oasis in a sadly parched part of the country. It was, in Milton’s words, “A happy rural seat of various view.” This turned out to be the perfect setting for Miltonic research because it felt like one could read portions of Paradise Lost at the desk, then simply walk outside to do laboratory research in Eden itself. In truth, there were only two reasons I was able to distinguish between this Southern California manmade garden and pre-fallen Paradise. (1) Alas, there was neither a Tree of Life nor Tree of Knowledge (despite my earnest searching), and (2) the roses had thorns. (According to Milton’s epic, the rose grew its thorns only after Sin made its horrific debut when Adam and Eve fell. Keep in mind that Paradise Lost was published 192 years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.) It would be best to quote Milton at length here, who knew well how short words and artifice fell in the face of perfection:

Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Otheres whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betweixt them Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks
Grasing the tender herb, were interpos’d,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves
Of coole recess, o’re which the mantling vine
Layes forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant. (IV.248-254; 257-260)

5But like Adam and Eve, I was driven out of Eden for more laborious tasks. For a week I took my seat in the Ahmanson Reading Room to page through rare books, first editions, and manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My Master’s Essay was on dreaming in Milton’s Paradise Lost, so the goal of this research trip was to find out a bit more about how early modern people thought about the dream. This is pre-Freud, of course, so all the typical notions we have about dreams are going to be quite different in this period, or at least written about in unfamiliar ways. For example, in a moment that anticipates Freud, Sir Thomas Browne writes that dreams “intimately tell us our selves.”

I looked at first editions of many books, which was an exciting experience in itself (though in a non-fetishistic sort of way), being able to handle the original printed materials of Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Nashe, Sir Philip Sidney, and others. The first edition of Paradise Lost from 1667, for example, is quite interesting. The copy I handled was a rather plain artifact, a small quarto in nearly perfect condition. It has subtly raised bands on the spine and a brown Morocco-leather binding that shows off the beautiful but modest gilding. What is really fascinating about this first edition, however, is that the poem has line numbers. Now we are all familiar with the newer, annotated paperbacks that include line numbers for students who need to easily reference parts of a poem. But isn’t it odd that a first edition would have line numbers? I haven’t quite figured this out, and perhaps it is not unusual, but it seems to me that a printer or Milton himself expected Paradise Lost to be studied like Renaissance scholars studied line-numbered versions of Homer and Virgil.

untitled3Perhaps the most fruitful parts of this research were the other books and pamphlets written by authors that were unknown to me. I found in some of these writings a passionate appeal to the dream world because it has the ability to tell us truths outside of our waking rationality and hint at transcendence. For example, Thomas Tryon writes, “Now ’tis no wonder if a Discourse of such sublime Subjects, as the Entertainments of our Souls (during the Body’s Nocturnal repose) when they having shaken off for a time the Fetters of the Senses, are upon the Wing, in the Suburbs of Eternity.” Likewise, a preacher named Philip Goodwin argued that dreams revealed the certainty of God’s being: “a free concession to, and due cognition of Divine Dreames, may draw out much of the manifold Knowledge of God.” Writing about dreams at this time would not be an innocuous endeavor. Society was fundamentally Christian, and dreams often present an individual with sinful realities. Thomas Nashe writes that in dreaming “the table of our hart [sic] is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemne us.”

William Prynne was a rather cruel fellow who did, in fact, use dreams as a text to condemn Archbishop William Laud, a clergyman Puritans hated for his Catholic tendencies. Prynne oversaw the eventual trial of Laud, and for evidence Prynne confiscated Laud’s dream diary that was meant to prove, among other things, that Laud was most certainly a Catholic. The most incriminating dream was one that read, “I dreamed last night that I was reconciled to the Church of Rome.” I was able to look at this pamphlet which was titled “A breviate of the life, of William Laud Arch-bishop of Canterbury: extracted (for the most part) verbatim, out of his owne diary . . . as a necessary prologue to the history of his tryall.” The key words here might be “for the most part.” Perhaps Prynne took some creative autonomy to ensure Laud’s execution, but this vindictiveness may have been motivated for good reasons. About a decade earlier, Prynne had found himself in a bit of trouble after printing a book that admonished stage-plays, actresses, and playgoers. The untitled2Queen herself was an actress, and the King a fervent playgoer, so perhaps inevitably, Prynne was punished: his Oxford degree was revoked and both his ears were cut off. He blamed Laud.

My trip to the Huntington Library was thoroughly enjoyable, and I learned a great deal about archival research in the process. It was also a treat to work beside some professional scholars, including a famous Miltonist who was working on a new Oxford edition of Paradise Lost.

It’s also worth mentioning that I recently made a stop at Milton’s former church, St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London. After I took communion I found myself standing on Milton’s grave. I had a nice chat with the parishioners and took this photo of a Milton statue by the coffee percolators

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

George Herbert Research Grant

Each year the graduate program awards a $1,000 research grant to support student research. This June, second year graduate student Adam Burchard traveled to England to visit Salisbury and Bemerton to research George Herbert. Adam was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience.

Adam Burchard and his son Lewis with Peter Webstser, member of The George Herbert in Bemerton Group.

Adam Burchard and his son Lewis with Peter Webstser, member of The George Herbert in Bemerton Group.

Over three days in early June, the Graduate English Student Research Grant gave me the opportunity to explore the last years of George Herbert’s life in Salisbury and Bemerton as part of a trip with my family to England. My wife Ginny also had a grant to study ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent so we combined our two research trips and added a stop in Butleigh to see an old friend and mentor of Ginny’s and a few days in London. Traveling with our son Lewis, who was nearing one year old, was far less stressful then we thought it would be. I think this was because he likes the constant movement and chaos rather than sitting still, and also having a small child broke the ice with a lot of people. Everyone we stayed with, and strangers as well, tended to be a bit more trusting and open because of him.

The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the summer cabin.

The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the summer cabin.

The evening we arrived in Salisbury was spent in the town and in and around the cathedral. We stayed at a Summer cabin in what’s called Salisbury Close, a walled area around the grounds of the cathedral made up of beautiful old buildings, shut in at night by two gates that are closed and locked every night at 11PM.  Our landlady gave us the key to these ancient gates, but we were never out late enough to use it because of Lewis.

Staying so near the cathedral we overcame its intimidating first impression and had the opportunity to get really accustomed to it over our three days of being there. I remember the cathedral now as having a more comfortable, lived-in feel than you might expect from pictures of it. People picnic on the grounds, play frisbee or golf and for the most part do those usual recreational things people do at parks, though there are signs reminding you that what you are standing on is actually a graveyard, so don’t do anything too disrespectful. While we were there the grounds were filled with some modern sculptures and performances were going on in the afternoons as part of an art festival. As in Herbert’s time, music still plays a large part in what goes on at the cathedral, and in the late afternoon, while sitting and paying with Lewis outside underneath the huge stained glass windows we could hear the choir practicing for the different processions and rituals.

Herbert is mentioned to have come here twice a week to play his lute with other musicians, and though we mostly know him as a poet, in Salisbury his presence as a devoted priest and musician seems to be have remained more established. When I mentioned his name a few times to local people they answered with: “Yes yes, George Herbert. Wonderful music!” Though his poems as far as I know were only set to music after his death. Herbert’s presence is subtle but prevalent in Salisbury, as I ran into his name more than a few times, found posters mentioning various events about him and found a display of drawings of him by local students.

Student pictures of Herbert

Student pictures of Herbert

Before the trip I had been emailing with members of the local group responsible for organizing most of the Herbert events in the area, called The George Herbert in Bemerton Group. One of their members, Mr. Peter Webster agreed to meet with me the day after our arrival at the home-base for Herbert’s memory, St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, a parish church across from Hebert’s residence. My plan was to follow Herbert’s twice-weekly general track from Salisbury to Bemerton on foot, which is only about a three mile walk, though very meandering. The next morning, after the evening of exploring the town and the cathedral, all three of us started from the cathedral, and somehow found our way there.

Salisbury sits at the convergence of five rivers. To utilize this wealth of water a system of gates and sluices and reservoirs were in engineered in the early 17th century, which permitted controlled flooding of large parcels of land right next to the city, creating a system of extremely lush pastureland known as the Water Meadows. Herbert’s trajectory from St. Andrews took him directly over this area which is characterized by its abundant life, running and stagnant water and rich humidity. Today there are public footpaths between the two locales that also go through the meadows and on to Bemerton, that allow for frequent views of the cathedral, grazing sheep and many little picturesque  scenes of small bridges over rushing streams, blooming pasture and dense forest. Some of these paths were rough on our stroller, and I’m not totally sure how we found our way out into Lower Bemerton on time.

Peter greeted us at the church porch of St. Andrew’s. He is an extremely knowledgeable, well-spoken and admirable person, and I was not ready for the breadth of his knowledge concerning Herbert. He was able to answer questions about nearly every physical feature of the church (except for the mysterious “hagioscope”), and was very happy to show my family and I around. The experience of St. Andrew’s and the cathedral were remarkably different. Unlike the momentous, almost theatrical atmosphere you find in the cathedral, there is more a sense of the structure’s practical utility. St. Andrew’s is tiny, and extremely tidy, and each object or architectural feature gathered into it seems to have a distinct ceremonial use. The connection with Herbert is unmistakable and all over, and not ostentatious in any way. The walls bow out at an angle away from each other in a way that Peter told me was intentional at the time they were built. They are held in suspension by the intricate network of trusses holding them from falling out, which gives the interior the appearance of ancient upside down boat.

Adam with Peter and Canon Judy Rees, another member of the Herbert group.

Adam with Peter and Canon Judy Rees, another member of the Herbert group, inside St. Andrew’s Church.

We were soon joined by another member of the Herbert group, Canon Judy Rees, who was also extremely knowledgeable and kind, and has been a major part of organizing events concerning Herbert. She let us know she had talked to the owner of the house next door, which had been the rectory and Herbert’s home (known as “the Old Rectory”), and been given permission to allow us inside to see. This was really a very nice thing to do. We had no idea and it came as a surprise. So all five of us walked across the street, advised to keep quiet as the owner of the house, the author Vikram Seth, was in the middle of writing.

Part of the facade of the Old Rectory had been extended out towards the road long ago, but a substantial part of the building has been left in its original form. Mr. Seth greeted us all and indeed had the bright, distant eyes of having been recently concentrating on something very hard. He asked about what we were researching and was very kind and congenial. Upstairs we made our way to the room where Herbert presumably died, looked out on the view of his last days, and then looked down at the original ash floorboards he once padded across. Out of respect for Mr. Seth’s privacy we didn’t take any pictures, but his home is so wonderfully decorated and serene, with such a feeling of tranquility and the passage of time, that you immediately sense a veneration for the space and for the lingering presence of the poet.

Judy and Peter led us outside and we walked down through the yard to where the River Nadder, one of the main rivers of the Water Meadows, flows unconstrained under a nearby bridge. The cathedral was there in the southeast rising out of the Meadows, which was somewhat of a relief because it helped to get my bearings after the winding foot path out. With the parish church behind and the cathedral ahead you really got a sense for the spatial proportions of Herbert’s home, a sense for some of the consistent landmarks that helped orient him as he woke every morning. For me, Herbert is a poet ultimately concerned with how to deconstruct the ordinary structures of daily life to unveil, or at least point the way towards, new spiritual understandings. Getting a sense for where and how he lived on a day to day basis, made this more tangible and less alien.

George Herbert sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral

George Herbert sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral

After talking and walking around in Seth’s backyard we went back to St. Andrew’s and said goodbye and thank you to Judy. Then Peter and I dropped Ginny and Lewis off at a nearby park. For awhile longer I talked with Peter and he showed me another church in the area that was built in recognition of Herbert and also to provide more room for the congregation than St. Andrew’s could provide. But with the congregation fallen in recent years, the church, St. John’s, had to find a new means to sustain itself and so was being remodeled to accommodate classes for a nearby school and act in general as a community center. As in other places we visited in England, this place was beautiful and historically significant, and a challenge to figure out what to do with after its original use had gone.

We met back up with my family and Peter offered us a ride back to town, which at first I resisted because I wanted to go through the Meadows again, but then I thought how that might really annoy Lewis and perhaps Ginny, who had both been very patient with my navigation skills on the way over. So Peter kindly dropped us off halfway, at Harnham, at an inn built into an old mill right in the middle of the Meadows. Lewis fell asleep right away, while we ordered two ciders because it was hot out and the bartender was adamant about how inappropriate it was to drink Guinness in this type of weather. It was evening at this point, and the air was filled with the sound of the rushing water and the smell of sheep and grass. Early the next morning we caught our bus to London where we stayed a few more days before coming home.

 

Graduate English, Student Careers

Writing on Deadline: Life of a National News Editor

Theresa Malloy is in her second year in the graduate program. Theresa received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Journalism at St. Thomas in 2013. This degree launched her into the national news editing scene. She has previously worked for organizations like ThreeSixty JournalismMpls.St.Paul Magazine, and BringMeTheNews.com. Below she talks about her current work at LAKANA.

Theresa reporting at the fire station as a community newspaper editor. One of the skills Theresa has picked up is taking notes without looking at her notepad. (Photo by Anne Malloy)

Theresa reporting at the fire station as a community newspaper editor. One of the skills Theresa has picked up is taking notes without looking at her notepad. (Photo by Anne Malloy)

140 characters or less. That’s all it takes to break news these days. Instantly the world knows Harper Lee is dead. Emergency responders are dispatched to Paisley Park. The White House is on lockdown. You have to wait a few minutes to find out if it was an active shooter, objects thrown on the lawn or an errant party balloon. (News junkies can confirm these scenarios are not invented).

When I’m not in graduate school at St. Thomas, I work as a national news editor for LAKANA in St. Paul. We produce news content for more than 100 television station websites across the country. We monitor Twitter and see thousands of tweets a day, then produce stories, package digital content and work with CNN’s wire service to get readers the news.

Every day on the job is different, but what’s trending on Twitter dictates the conversation and stories. Some days I am writing breaking news alerts, while other days it’s writing viral content. Yes, the most read story in my career might have been people Trumping their cats. (Kitty combovers). Regardless, we work to get the news out quickly, accurately and concisely.

The journalism world is changing. Since I graduated with my B.A. in Communication and Journalism three years ago from St. Thomas, my career has taken me on many different paths: community newspaper reporting, photography, videography, magazine writing and editing, radio script writing, web production and even investigative reporting.

What I have learned is that people can get news anywhere, so I have to ask myself what can I do as a reporter to consistently deliver reliable, smart reporting that they can’t get elsewhere. With readers you have to build trust, and good writing is key. One typo, inaccurate fact or bias could send the reader elsewhere.

The best stories write themselves. My favorite are the people who are doing the extraordinary everyday as if it were ordinary.

While I can produce some of those pieces on deadline, my coursework in Dr. Todd Lawrence’s Ethnographic Writing class allowed me to use my reporting skills and spend time telling the stories of people in North Minneapolis. I hope to continue this work throughout my graduate studies, since it is hard to find a newsroom that can afford to give reporters the time they need to really focus on their efforts on a single community and its nuances.

A tweet can be lifechanging in an instant. But the question we have to ask as news gatherers, is what do people need to know? Then we determine what is the best way to deliver it – Media gallery? Video? Livestream?

Whatever the article, we try to offer readers a story prepared with thought, consideration and care. As the industry evolves, I am hopeful the news coverage will improve. It definitely shapes the national conversation as is evident with the looming presidential election. So I will keep monitoring Twitter, awaiting what breaks next and ready to write on deadline.

 

Author Visits, Book Review, Faculty Research, Graduate English, Undergraduate English

“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?

Center for Writing, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students

Graduate Writing Consultant [VIDEO]

Pearl Nielsen completed her graduate degree this Spring. She intends to pursue her doctorate in post-colonial literature. During her second and final year in the program she served as a graduate writing consultant in the Center for Writing. Below is a brief account of a special moment in that position.

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Faculty Teaching, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Teaching Mentorship

Teaching Mentorship Reflection

Each semester multiple students are engaged in our Teaching Mentorship program. Students team up with a full-time faculty member to help in all aspects of undergraduate teaching. This Spring, graduate student Taya Sazama helped teach Dr. Catherine Craft-Fairchild’s Clues: Detectives in Literature and Film course. Proving that close relationships between our students and faculty exists far beyond the classroom, Taya  (T.S.) and Dr. Craft-Fairchild (C.C.F.) interviewed one another on their experience working together.

Graduate student Taya Sazama leads class discussion while Dr. Craft-Fairchild (second “student” in from far right) participates as a class member.

C.C.F.:  How did you feel last summer when you found out you were getting a stack of free books and that one pair were the collected Sherlock Holmes stories? Which book in the stack ended up being your favorite and why?

A1er2KQKI1LT.S.:  It is always a treat to get books for free! Nobody actually ever told me that they were free—I assumed that I was getting them on loan from the bookstore. I even remember asking when I went to pick them up from my mailbox if I would be allowed to write in them. I think the idea that I was getting all of them for free was too good to be true! As your question indicates, I think the Sherlock Holmes collection would have to be the books that I am most in love with from the set, although I especially enjoyed Laurie King’s continuation of the Sherlock Holmes story. Other than a general understanding of Sherlock Holmes, I had actually never read Doyle’s works before (shocking, I know). It was wonderful to experience them for the first time with the students (most of whom were probably also reading them for the first time).


T.S.: You have participated in the teaching mentorship program many times before – what about the process keep you coming back? What was a highlight of this semester for you?

Dr. Cathy Craft-Fairchild has been a Professor of English at St. Thomas since 1989!

Dr. Cathy Craft-Fairchild has been a Professor of English at St. Thomas since 1989!

C.C.F.: The highlight of the semester was working with and getting to know you, of course! Actually, honestly, that was a highlight and is one of the reasons I enjoy the mentorship program so much–it’s fun to work one-on-one with graduate students. Our master’s students are really smart and enthusiastic. Every mentee that I have worked with has brought wonderful ideas to the table and terrific positive energy to the course. Your lesson plans, assignment ideas, insights into individual students, and general input on things we might do to improve the course were all wonderfully helpful. Undergraduates get a better course when there are two minds working on it, engaging with them, and available as resources. (And I think you were amazingly generous in conferencing with students–you devoted a lot of time to that, even though you’re working and taking classes and super busy.  I know the undergrads benefitted from the conferences with you, and bye-the-way tons of students sang your praises in their writing reflections!) I guess what I’m saying, in short form, is that I enjoy collaboration and feel that my mentees really co-teach; I know for certain that I learn as much from you guys as you do from me!

T.S.: That is really sweet that they thought to say nice things about me in the evaluations! It makes me happy to know that I was able to help them. I agree with you that getting to collaborate as teachers was one of the most enjoyable parts of the class. It felt really natural to work together and even though we sometimes had different styles, we always seemed to mesh well. I was sometimes amazed at how easily we bounced off one another during lessons (and we never even practiced!).


C.C.F.: You generously spent a lot of time conducting one-on-one conferences with students. What were the highs and lows of that experience? I thought your contribution here was spectacular–what do you think?

T.S.: I know from my experience both as a student and as a teacher how important one-on-one conferences are, especially to become more proficient in writing. I also know how much pressure there is to be on the teacher’s side of the conference; you often don’t know what students will walk in with and you have to be ready to make sense of their ideas and take them to the next level. It is hard when you see a student start to get frustrated because they don’t understand what you want them to do or feel overwhelmed with the amount of changes they need to make to a draft; it takes practice and knowledge of individual students to be able to have the type of conference where both the teacher and the student walk away feeling excited for the next step.

C.C.F. I absolutely love what you’re saying here—it explains why you were so good at conferencing! You are so good at reflecting on the complexity of the task and how best to approach it! I think sometimes I get so involved with the paper in front of me and with thinking of strategies for the student to take with it that I stop attending to the individual, and that always backfires. The writer’s feelings factor into the process in a huge way—if the person feels positive and confident, the writing and revising go a lot better.

T.S.: For this reason, I knew going in to this semester that I wanted to get lots of practice in with writing conferences. I am thankful that students wanted to sign up to meet with me—I tried to stress to them that while I wanted to help them with their essays, they were also helping me too by letting me practice this skill. It was gratifying that many of the students I met with came back to talk with me for each paper. I appreciated how supportive you were of me doing this, encouraging students to meet with me throughout the entire semester. In the same way, my individual meetings with you really helped me to process all that we were doing throughout the semester—thanks!


T.S.: What are some of the challenges of having a student mentee? Do you approach the class differently?(Obviously, I’m a peach, but even so…)  

C.C.F.:  The challenges of having a student mentee connect to the rewards: with someone next to me, hoping to learn something from me, I really don’t want to be spectacularly stupid. I want to make sure my course design, syllabus clarity and completeness, course materials, and lesson plans are all reasonably intelligent! I make mistakes in every course, and sometimes, even carefully thought-through plans can go awry. Encountering the unpredictable element always present in dealing with human beings–for good and ill, because sometimes the opposite happens, too, and a botched plan works amazingly well through sheer serendipity!–is a good learning experience for aspiring teachers. But I don’t want my mentees going away muttering, “gosh, all I learned this semester was how NOT to teach English 203”! I hope always to teach courses that are responsibly planned and laid-out so that my graduate students can see all the moving parts. The goal of the mentorship, as I see it, is for the graduate student to examine everything that goes into course planning and instruction, co-create some instructional materials with me, plan and execute some of her or his own designs, and make decisions about how to shape her or his own materials and pedagogic strategies in future. I want my mentees to feel confident about putting together a full course of their own by the end of the semester.


C.C.F.: You are a veteran teacher, having taught high-school for several years. How would you compare secondary to post-secondary education?  

Taya Sazama will be writing her Master's Essay and graduating in the Fall of 2016.

Taya Sazama will be writing her Master’s Essay and graduating in the Fall of 2016.

T.S.: Well, I don’t know if I would say that three years’ experience qualifies me as a veteran, but I actually found more similarities than differences between the two. I think I was prepared for it to be drastically different, but many of the strategies, goals, and challenges were the same. I think I would notice a definite shift the higher the course number and the more specialized the material, but the mix of ages and skill levels made it feel very familiar to me. We talked a little in our last meeting about some of the differences between student-parent-teacher relationships and the varying levels of grade transparency—these aspects were more different than the actual classroom sessions that we had with students. The way in which you structured the course and how you presented the class goals was a lot like what I did as a high school teacher—you think about what you want students to be able to do in the end and then you structure the materials, lessons, activities, and assignments to achieve those goals. Without a doubt, the experience gave me the chance to think back over those first few years of teaching and realize what was effective and what I could do better in the future. I can’t say how valuable it is to go back to being a student in order to gain that perspective.


T.S.: This was the first time you taught the class on Detective Fiction. I thought it was a great, creative blend of classic and modern texts. What parts of the class do you think were most successful? If you teach this class again, would you make any changes? How do the final student surveys influence this decision?

C.C.F.: I appreciate the compliment, Miss Taya! I believe that creating and designing new courses is my best skill–I actually like the way I put together texts that “speak” to each other in various ways. I just think someone else–someone with actual charm and social skills, like you, for instance!–should teach the courses after I’ve mapped it. I’ve learned, over 28 years of full-time teaching, that being an extreme introvert, as I am, is a big drawback in the job.
Anyway, what I liked best was the way students responded to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. They really enjoyed them and were very willing to engage in discussion, do micro-research projects, and write about that first unit of the course. Laurie King’s Holmsean adaptation, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, also taught well. In my other class, Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, produced wonderful discussions and thoughtful writing, which made me think that devoting more of the course to Sherlock Holmes and his spin-offs might be a good idea.
51cn4iUzisL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_  What surprised me was the largely negative and sometimes stone-silent response by students to Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Since my daughter Samantha is in college, I often run course ideas past her to get an opinion from the twenty-something demographic, and she likes learning about filmmaking and film history. She thinks film noir is cool, but I forgot that my kiddo is a theater major and kinda artsy–clearly, that topic was not especially interesting to our class. So I think I need to rework the second half of the course if I teach it again.
In the surveys I gave at the end of the semester, several students mentioned that they would like to read more classic detective fiction, and some mentioned Agatha Christie. It might work to stick to the British tradition and close with writers like Christie and P.D. James. Student surveys, whether the ones I give or the IDEA ones for St. Thomas, are often inconclusive because they self-contradict: what one student likes and learns from, another dislikes. In our class, for instance, there really was no clear consensus about which books were people’s favorites and which least favorite, though Sherlock Holmes scored relatively high, while The Third Man and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist were mentioned more often as least-favored. I have to admit, though, that I often teach the same way I parent: green vegetables and Colson Whitehead are both good for young people, so I sometimes ignore what they like and give them what I think is valuable for them!

T.S.: I love your logic at the end and I definitely agree! While I may never have naturally gravitated towards The Third Man or The Intuitionist, I am really glad that I got the chance to read and discuss them. They were a great mix to the more classic Sherlock Holmes. I remember that quite a few students said that even though one or the other was their least favorite text, they learned the most from it. That in itself is gratifying because they recognize the difference between being just entertained and being exposed to something completely new.


C.C.F.: Having been on both sides of the desk now for quite a while, what “dream course” is your student self telling your teacher self to design?

T.S.:  I think I would have said this even before beginning my graduate degree, but I would love to teach a course focusing on female authorship. I would probably just focus on British authors since that is where my true love lies. It would absolutely have to include Jane Austen, Anne Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Virginia Woolf as the main figures, but beyond that I would have to sit down and do some thinking. Unlike you, I think being in the classroom is much easier than planning an entire course!

C.C.F.:  Great! I’ll plan and you teach! Think UST would let us job share?

T.S.:  I’ll only agree if you co-teach with me! I think this sounds like a great plan for a Spring 2017 course…