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…


Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

From Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: A Research Trip of a Lifetime!

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Kensington Gardens

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and the Potter-to-Potter class has finally landed at Heathrow Airport. We clear customs, grab our luggage, and make our way to the hotel. After checking our bags, we wait for our three o’clock check in time by taking on London. We started by exploring the area around our hotel. High Street Kensington Tube Station was a two-minute walk from the front door. Kensington Gardens, a quiet space inside the bustling city, was within walking distance. After exhausting the exploration of our new neighborhood, we split up to find different ways to stay awake for the rest of the afternoon. This is where we began our adventures in London.

In the weeks leading up to our adventure, the thirteen of us sat in OEC and read through an extensive list of British children’s literature, from Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter and so much more. We discussed what a book needed to have to be considered children’s literature, and how children’s literature in Britain is different from that in America. The focal point of the class would be our archival research project, where the research was to be done in London! Determining what my project would be required brainstorming early on. Dr. Bouwman assigned the projects as anything broadly related to British children’s literature. We could examine a specific author, or a specific setting, or we could try to answer questions about British children’s literature as a field. I am researching how the expectations of children’s authors have changed since the early 1900s. Other students are looking at how different manuscripts evolved into the books we know today, or how authors depicted different settings from our novels. By the time we were leaving for London, we were ready and excited to tackle the research.

Beatles

The Beatles

On our first full day in London we explored the British Library, where we would eventually get our own reader’s cards and have access to their archives. We looked at the Library’s Treasures Gallery where we were able to see historical artifacts such as the Magna Carta, a suffragette’s notebook, Da Vinci’s notebook, and even some handwritten Beatles lyrics! It was so unbelievable to be standing in a single room that contained so much history from so many fields. This was a great introduction to the history of London that prepared us for the experiences we were about to have.

The next day, we met with two children’s editors from Tamarind Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This was definitely one of my favorite experiences. I plan to be an editor in the future, and seeing the offices at Tamarind was an incredible introduction to the publishing world. When we had lunch with them, I was able to find out what expectations they face as publishers of children’s literature, which helped with my research project. We learned a lot about what kind of power book publishers have, and also what their limitations are when it comes to promoting change. It was especially inspiring to hear both editors say that the most important end goal for them was publishing an authentic story. Later in our trip, we would be meeting with three different children’s authors, and we would keep this impressive goal of authenticity in mind.

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

During our first week, we also had a chance to visit the Victoria and Albert archives, where the majority of Beatrix Potter’s work is kept. We were able to see Potter’s original artwork and some of her correspondence with publishers regarding what they referred to as the “Bunny Book.”

Over the weekend, we made our way by train to Oxford, where we would be staying at St. Edmund’s Hall. Our first stop was the Bodleian Library, where we were able to see some of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s work. As a writer, it was fascinating to see the difference between Tolkien and Lewis’s writing processes. Lewis appears to have done most of the editing in his head before writing out a nearly final copy of his work. Based on what we saw, Tolkien was more meticulous about editing, and would only write his work in pen once it felt complete. We could see the erased and rewritten words in pencil in early manuscripts of the Lord of the Rings! I was not only fascinated by the different writing styles, but also inspired. So often, after reading a great book it feels as though the words come directly from the writer’s mind with no work in between. To see that writing, even for the greats, is a process of writing and rewriting and editing takes some pressure off any first draft. This same lesson was reaffirmed after meeting with a few authors.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

On our first day back from Oxford, we took a day trip to Great Missenden. There, we met with Lucy Coats, the author of Cleo, which was one of the contemporary books we read for class. I really enjoyed this meeting because Lucy was so passionate about her topic. Cleo is a fictionalized story of the early life of Cleopatra. Lucy was so excited to discuss her love of Cleopatra and the mythology she studied. The next day we got to meet another author, Kate Saunders, who wrote Five Children on the Western Front. This book was a continuation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It. Saunders was incredibly enthusiastic about telling her story and the inspiration she had after reading Nesbit’s book. It was so exciting to see that the passion for each author’s project was authentic, and they were both thrilled to share their experiences with us.

While in Great Missenden, we were also able to look at the Roald Dahl archives. We flipped through pages and pages of legal paper that contained Dahl’s process of writing Matilda. We found that in Dahl’s earliest drafts, Matilda was actually a nightmare of a child, and Ms. Honey had a gambling problem! This is, of course, much different from the poor and innocent Matilda we read today accompanied by a loving and caring Ms. Honey.

Harry Potter World

Howarts Castle model, Wizarding World of Harry Potter

A trip to England focused on children’s literature would not have been complete without a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am one of about four students on this trip who had not read all of the Harry Potter books growing up. We read the first book of the series in class, and based on class discussions, I learned that a large part of the success of the franchise was reading it as a series while you grow up with the books. Although I was a bit of an outsider in this world, the movie- making and world-building shown at this attraction were incredible.

This class was an eye-opening experience of children’s literature as not only something nostalgic, but also something well-worth studying in an academic field. Seeing original drafts and artwork from authors we read was a great opportunity to understand how the writing process works and how a book goes from a writer’s mind to the copies we have in our homes. After our great adventure in London, we were ready to write our research papers.

Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is a junior at St. Thomas. She is an English Major, Business Administration Minor, and American Culture and Difference Minor. In the future, Rachel plans to become an editor. 

Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

Recognizing the Value of Every Body’s Story

Walking through the doors of Columbia University Medical Center: Hammer Health Sciences Teaching and Learning Center, I fear that I may be grossly underqualified to be here. Everyone looks so official, bustling by in scrubs, varying lengths of white coats, and other official attire that speaks “I’ve worked hard to earn a place here.” I tread slowly and methodically, and my fingers fumble as I check in and am handed my identification card that allows me to walk freely through the doors of the CUMC campus, becoming my life preserver for saying that I, too, belong here.

I’m in New York City; CUMCSign550specifically, at Columbia University’s Summer Institute in Narrative Medicine. Narrative medicine is an interdisciplinary approach that recognizes the value of a patient’s story and, in so doing, exposes Western medicine’s narrow focus on the physical, tangible biological factors of health and disease that often overshadow the patient’s humanity. Narrative medicine relies on the core principles to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved to action by stories of illness. In doing so, it also recognizes the complexity of each individual and highlights the many stories we all bring to an experience.

During the past year, I have become a strong proponent in the work of narrative medicine, surrounding myself with literature on the topic and exploring narrative practice in my own literary work. During the spring semester, I worked with the support of Dr. Emily James on a research project called Mid-Century Narrative Medicine: Sylvia Plath’s Confessional Practice, where I sought to bridge the gap between several disciplines – including medicine, psychology, and literature – within the framework of poet Sylvia Plath. Coming from my solid foundation in studying psychology, this research worked to address a class of more “invisible” diseases: mental illness.

The structure at the institute was designed in a way that maximized every effort in fostering deep, intellectual discussions on the complex topics narrative medicine grapples with. Each topic began with some form of a lecture given by one of the “pros,” ranging from Dr. Rita Charon, MD, world-renowned for her ground-breaking research in narrative medicine, to Craig Irvine, Ph.D., author and Director of Education of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Following the lectures, we broke off into small groups consisting of about 6 people, where we were first given an open-ended prompt followed by exactly five minutes to write a response. We were always given the same guidance: begin writing immediately, keep your pen moving across the paper the entire time, and if you draw a blank and don’t know what to write next, continue writing “I’m stuck” until the next thing comes to mind. (It may sound silly, but that actually works!)CUMCWriting750

When we read our work aloud afterward there was one catch: no prefacing your writing by saying things like “Well, I didn’t really know what to write, so it probably won’t make sense…” or other ways of trying to explain yourself beforehand. This was a challenge. You mean we’re supposed to read without explaining it beforehand? Nobody’s going to understand the tangled mess of words I have written down. What I came to learn through this intentional structure so lovingly encouraged on us was the ability to trust the power of my own writing. I learned that by attempting to preface my work with a rushed explanation of what I’d been thinking when I was writing or how I want my listener to understand it, I am essentially minimizing my own work and stripping my writing from the innate power it dares to hold.

One evening, we attended an event called Intima CUMCIntima550Presents Life-Writing: An Evening of Readings about Bodies, Illness and Care. Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine is an online literary journal focusing on healthcare, medical stories, hospitals, and caregivers. This event we attended featured some of the published authors who had come to read excerpts of their published works and share their varied and diverse experiences surrounding healthcare.

Before the institute began we were told about this event and encouraged to bring along any of our own pieces we’ve worked on to share as well. In the weeks leading up to it, I had assumed there was absolutely no way that I would get up in front of a room full of people to read anything I’ve written. However, at the last minute as I was packing my bags, I threw in a copy of a narrative essay I had written called “Returning Home,” which talked about my experience as a nurse’s aide working in the field of senior home healthcare. In this particular piece, I detail the pain – yet honor – I had of being by the side of one of my beloved seniors as he passed away peacefully. I had written it as part of a final project for the ENGL 202 class called Medical Narratives, taught by Dr. James, which was in essence my first attempt at narrative medicine. I figured it didn’t hurt to throw it in, just in the unlikely event that I had a moment of gumption and courage to speak.

With the first several days of the institute under my belt, I had surprised myself by actually beginning to ponder over my “definitely no” decision about choosing to present my work that I had previously made prior to arriving. Armed with the practice the last few days had given me with sharing my work, I had actually begun to think that maybe, just maybe, this was something I could do. I was absolutely terrified, but had been encouraged by the other people at the institute – students and “the pros” alike – to go for it. I think deep down, I knew that if I let fear make the decision for me, I would later come to regret it. So, despite the trepidation of exposing my work to the room, I did it anyway. To those not as familiar with narrative medicine, it’s important to remember that autobiographical accounts in the scope of narrative medicine are deeply personal in nature because they deal with illnesses, often leaving the patient immensely vulnerable and helpless. Although my piece I chose to share came from my perspective as the provider, the vulnerability still remained because despite being the provider, we are still greatly moved by the patients we encounter.

I did it. CUMCReading550Remembering the “rule” about not prefacing my work or minimizing it in any way, I began to speak. I told the story of my first experience having one of my own patients die, which was magnified by the fact that I was with him when it happened and came far sooner than we had imagined. It was a very emotional experience to write about and gave me confidence in sharing my work as well as the conviction to allow my voice to be heard. As I finished reading aloud, I looked up at the audience and remember seeing several members wipe tears from their eyes, a clear example of the power narrative medicine has in humanizing us all in a world that seeks to remove all emotion from the medical field.

That experience really set the stage for what I would learn on the last day during my favorite lecture, “The Failure of Witnessing in Medicine” by Kristen Slesar, LCSW, MS. In addition to teaching at Columbia University, Kristen is a trauma psychotherapist and former Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner with many years of experience testifying in the most abhorrent criminal cases of sexual violence. I could write a book on all the insight I learned from her lecture alone, but the most important thing she emphasized is probably the best example of the purpose of narrative medicine. She emphasized time and time again how any line of work we do involving people and professional care impacts both the patient and the provider. We often think of the professionals as being a stone wall, never showing any emotion – both publicly and privately – for the work that they do. Yes, there’s a time and a place for that; if you’re an emergency surgeon, breaking down sobbing in the middle of operating on a child gunshot victim probably isn’t the best time for emotions. But that doesn’t mean it’s never to be discussed. When we talk about our line of work, we usually talk about the horror of the case, because everything is seen as putting the patient first. We don’t allow providers to talk about how they themselves are impacted. Because we are all human beings, we are going to be impacted by the people we serve, and that is okay.

Across America, medical schools and other graduate programs are implementing programs in narrative medicine to complement the preparation of our future providers for the kind of work they will encounter. In fact, research shows that those who tell their story fare better in the work that they do. This means less “burning-out,” which ultimately means fewer medical errors, as well as the patients’ experience being enhanced by feeling that they are more than just a disease to be treated. Narrative writing allows you access to something you may not have been able to access before because you can talk about the experience from your perspective and the way you tell that story, patient and provider alike. Narrative medicine is about writing from the patient’s experience, yet also includes bearing witness to our own experience as providers.

My experience at Columbia’s Institute in Narrative Medicine was truly life-changing. My earlier fear of “not belonging here” was laid to rest within the first morning of the institute, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout its entirety. Not only did I get to learn more about the topic of narrative medicine, but I was also given the opportunity to connect with the world leaders in this subject and work one-on-one with them, sitting down together and collaborating on the work I have done and getting encouragement on where to dive deeper into my study. I met others who share a similar desire to make narrative medicine an everyday part of clinical practice, and left with an even stronger desire to continue in this field. My goals of becoming a counseling psychologist were further strengthened with the knowledge that narrative medicine will unequivocally be a part of my practice. CUMCGroup750

I extend my most sincere appreciation and gratitude to the St. Thomas community that has supported and encouraged me in forging my way through this unique, interdisciplinary study. I am immensely grateful to Dr. Emily James, whose support and collaboration have gotten me to where I am and who continues to inspire and encourage me to seek out the paths less traveled. I am also very grateful to the Grants and Research Office for funding my spring research through the Collaborative Inquiry Grant, as well as the English department and Dr. Amy Muse for the funding and support that allowed me to travel to Columbia University.

Finally, I want to encourage all of my fellow peers at St. Thomas who have a passionate interest but are unsure the precise area of study it falls under: seek out those professors and other students who share a similar interest, and utilize their knowledge and expertise in further exploring those topics. Find those who challenge you to dive deeper into those interests and encourage you to walk those uncharted paths. I started this interest as a student majoring in Psychology, with a great interest in health and an underlying love for literature. Now, I am additionally getting a minor in English and regularly use the support and expertise from both departments as a way to study what I am most passionate about. The support I have experienced has blown me away and allowed me to find the precise area of study I am interested in and has shaped the career path I intend to follow.

CUMCBio300
Megan Vaughan is a senior at St. Thomas with a major in Psychology and a minor in English. Megan has a great interest in the interdisciplinary field of narrative medicine and plans to use this interest in becoming a counseling psychologist.

 

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

Graduate Students take Savannah, GA

Professional conference presentations are a unique opportunity for graduate students. In February of this year, three of our students, along with Dr. Catherine Craft-Fairchild, traveled to Savannah, Georgia, for the Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. The Graduate English program happily reimburses students for conference travel, making these professional opportunities more affordable. Grad student Victoria Pyron Tankersley was gracious enough to write about her experience. Victoria will graduate from the program this summer.

Graduate students Andrea Dennis, Victoria Pyron Tankersley, and Pearl Nielsen

Graduate students Andrea Dennis, Victoria Pyron Tankersley, and Pearl Nielsen

During the first class of GENG 628: Criminals and Rogues in 18th Century British Literature, Dr. Craft-Fairchild distributed a packet with information concerning perhaps the largest interdisciplinary group in her field—the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. She then told us that the individual paper proposals for the conference she regularly attends—the Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies—were due by November 1, and encouraged us to submit our mid-term papers for the conference.

I, along with a few peers, decided to submit. The context for writing my essay widened; along with writing for the course, I was writing for the conference, and this seemed to drastically change my experience. I felt more invested in the essay, as I could more easily imagine how and where it would fit in current scholarly conversations, and I was more inclined to seek mentoring from Dr. Craft-Fairchild as the essay developed. Around mid-December, we turned in our final drafts, awaiting the conference in the spring.

The historic 1858 fountain at Forsyth Park.

The historic 1858 fountain at Forsyth Park.

The conference was held in Savannah, Georgia, from February 25–27, and the theme was, “East and West: The Broad Expanse of the Eighteenth Century.” Dr. Craft-Fairchild orchestrated our panel, which was titled, “Questioning the Status Quo: Eighteenth-Century ‘Criminal’ Literature,” and she presented her own essay, titled, “Teaching Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and Betsy Thoughtless: The Joining of Opposites,” side-by-side with me, Pearl Nielsen, and Andrea Dennis. Pearl and Andrea focused on the ways in which gender was criminalized—essays titled “Deregulating Women’s Conduct and Exposing Men’s Conduct: Authorship and Gender in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and Betsy Thoughtless,” and “Prostitution and the Malignancy of Desire in Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood,” respectively. My essay, “Criminality as a Stimulus for Colonial and Capitalist Growth in Defoe’s Moll Flanders,” focused on the criminalization of the poor.

The questions and feedback we received after presenting our research was one of the most valuable takeaways from the conference. We quickly realized that the small crowd listening was filled, not just with other graduate students, but with other professors and experts in the field. The group asked us intriguing questions, pointed out avenues of inquiry we had not yet investigated, and suggested new resources that could contribute to the development of our work.

St. John the Baptist Cathedral, the oldest church in Georgia.

St. John the Baptist Cathedral, the oldest church in Georgia.

Not all of the conferences I’ve attended have given such a depth of feedback, so I attributed this surprisingly lively feedback to the nature of the conference itself—being a small, tight-knit group, deeply invested in its area of study. For this reason, and although generalized conferences can be helpful in different ways, attending a specialized conference quickly became one of my most treasured graduate school experiences.

Along with being lively, our small crowd was also kind. After the panel, Dr. Craft-Fairchild informed me that her dissertation advisor—who wrote an exhaustive 688-page biography of Defoe—was sitting amidst the crowd. Instead of openly criticizing my essay, which she very easily could have done, Dr. Paula Backscheider sat quietly and supportively in the back row—an action which, again, speaks to the nature of the small, specialized, and friendly conference.

Pearl, Andrea, and I ended that conference feeling intellectually energized. And, after attending the keynote speaker and networking with some peers and professors, we were free to go out to dinner with Dr. Craft-Fairchild and then roam the city of Savannah, taking way too many Instagram pictures of each other and the historic town squares.

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Assistant

Hemingway Research Assistant

Angela Drennen is a current graduate student entering her final year in the program. She spent the last year working with Dr. Kelli Larson researching for her second book on the American author.

This past fall and spring of 2015-16 I had the opportunity to work on the tremendously exciting (and tremendously immense) collection of Hemingway research from 1989 to the present. This includes articles, books, audio, dissertations, and even research published in foreign languages. This will be the second book Dr. Larson has published compiling Hemingway research after taking on the task the first time, compiling Hemingway research from the decades leading up to 1989. Despite hoping someone else would pick up from where she left off, no one else stood up to the task, so she, along with some of her hardworking students, got to work compiling all of the Hemingway research that had been done since the last book was published.

In August, I got an e-mail from Dr. Larson asking me if I wanted to be a research assistant on a manuscript she’d been working on. After taking a professional editing course with Dr. Easley, I knew that editing was what I wanted to do, which meant I needed to get some experience. Needless to say, I immediately said “yes.” Soon I was immersed in checking spacing, switching all of the citations to Chicago format, combining citations from each year, and a number of other detail-oriented tasks to prepare the manuscript to send to a publisher. The project in total wound up at a whopping 325 pages – the document is so long that Microsoft Word refused to spellcheck (which is fine, because I don’t trust it anyway). I probably spent about 50 or 60 of the 75 hours that were allotted in the budget for my position throughout the fall and spring. Each time I sat down to edit, it was usually in 3 hour intervals, unless I was determined to get done with a whole file I was checking, in which case I could spend up to 6 hours on it.

I started the project knowing nothing about Hemingway aside from an anecdote my dad likes to tell where Hemingway’s wife rubbed him down with alcohol before a dinner party because he had stopped taking showers. Embarrassingly, I haven’t even had the chance to read any of Hemingway’s works in my English student career. I learned a lot about Hemingway as well as gained a familiarity with using the Chicago Manual of Style (a must when preparing to get into editing). By some chance, I also learned how to replace a laptop keyboard when mine decided to rebel against all of my typing.

There were some stressful, panicked moments, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t ask Dr. Easley for advice, but it was a truly satisfying experience to help Dr. Larson put together this project. It’s not finished yet, but it’s going to be worth the wait to all Hemingway enthusiasts and anxious students who need to write papers, and I’m excited to see what the final product will be.

Most of all, this opportunity wouldn’t have been possible without taking the editing course by Dr. Easley and her recommending me to Dr. Larson.

I think me and Hemingway would have gotten along pretty well.

Angela Drennen and her cat Luddy (Ludwig).

Angela Drennen and her cat Luddy (Ludwig).

Editorial Assistant, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students

Editorial Assistantship

Grace Beekman is in her final semester in the graduate program. This year she has been working for Dr. Alexis Easley as an editorial assistant for Victorian Periodicals Review. Dr. Easley is also Grace’s advisor for her capstone essay. Grace will present her essay, titled “Emotional Density, Suspense, and the Serialization of The Woman in White in All the Year Round” at our Master’s Essay Presentation event on Wednesday, May 18th. Grace also writes for her own lifestyle blog titled  Sometimes Gracefully.

Dr. Alexis Easley and her graduate editorial assistant Grace Beekman

Dr. Alexis Easley and her graduate editorial assistant Grace Beekman

Before working with Dr. Alexis Easley as an assistant editor to Victorian Periodicals Review, I thought editors were simply the academic world’s grammar police, patrolling the streets of each paragraph for any comma or semicolon that looked suspicious or out of the ordinary. But this initial impression of an editor’s job was only partly true. My year spent editing for VPR and learning from Dr. Easley changed and expanded my understanding of the editor’s role in the academic world.

At the sentence level, this editing assistantship challenged me to not only identify a submission’s grammatical errors but also understand why these errors made the piece unclear and how I could fix them in a way that honored the author’s voice and argument. VPR is published using rules from the Chicago Manual Style guide, and I spent many hours pouring over each submission with my massive edition of the style guide open next to my computer for quick reference. I worked through each submission slowly, not because I was solely hunting for syntax errors or style guide mistakes but because I wanted to know the writer’s message as clearly as possible. Only then would I be able to give helpful revisions that would not detract from the article’s meaning. Editors are required to think in terms of both the author and the journal’s reading audience: Is the author’s message clear in this paragraph? Does this sentence support the author’s claim? Will readers understand the meaning of this section? While I was certainly required to “police” any suspicious sentence constructions, what I found most enjoyable was investigating ways in which confusing sentences or paragraphs could be revised so that they were not only understandable but also enhanced the message of the article.

victorian_periodicals_reviewThis editing opportunity also introduced me to the mechanics of the publishing world. I participated in each aspect of the publishing process, from the heavy edits on the initial submission to the final read-through before the issue went to print. Each issue of VPR is produced by a collaborative network of editors, reviewers, and publishers who operate under strict deadlines and work hard to create an organized journal that serves the Victorian periodicals research community. After spending weeks editing every page of VPR’s forthcoming issue, I found it incredibly satisfying to hold and read through the finished product knowing that my editorial suggestions had helped each scholar showcase their work.

Editing for VPR allowed me to work closely with scholars from around the world and keep up with new research being explored in a field that I found fascinating. I helped revise essays that explored topics ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to nineteenth-century health advice in popular periodicals. Editing these innovative pieces inspired new directions for the research I was conducting in class, and one particular essay directly impacted the shape and direction of my master’s thesis. I was even able to contact the author and discuss certain aspects of her research that were in conversation with my own. Furthermore, being immersed in such scholarly work and continually reviewing my editorial guidelines improved my writing and reading comprehension throughout the year. This assistantship provided me with insight and hands-on experience in the publishing world, and I am excited to use the editing skills and techniques that I have gained in my future academic pursuits.

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Assistant

Human Rights Research Assistant

Pearl Nielsen is in her final semester in the graduate program. She works as a graduate consultant in the St. Thomas Center for Writing as well as being a research assistant for Dr. Kanishka Chowdhury, an experience she describes below. Dr. Chowdhury is also Pearl’s advisor for her capstone essay. Pearl will present her Master’s Essay, titled “Citizenship, Violence, and the Black Body: (Trans)National Belonging in Coates’s Between the World and Me and Cole’s Open City” at our Master’s Essay presentation event on May 18th. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating Pearl and all the other graduates.

Dr. Kanishka Chowdhury and Graduate Student Pearl Nielsen

Dr. Kanishka Chowdhury and Graduate Student Pearl Nielsen

During the second and final year of my MA English degree, I have served as a research assistant for Dr. Kanishka Chowdhury as he prepares to write a book on human rights. When I began this project, Dr. Chowdhury asked me to conduct a review of recent literature about human rights discourse. I found and read articles and books from the last 3-5 years that look at human rights concerns, particularly the language of human rights in contemporary discourse. To align my research with Dr. Chowdhury’s particular interest in transnational human rights, I aimed to make connections between texts to illuminate how human rights discourse takes shape across national borders.

As I reviewed the literature, I tried to get a sense of the patterns that seem to repeat themselves in this discourse. Some key inquiries guided my research: What sorts of rights concerns seem to dominate? What concerns seem to be ignored or underrepresented? Is most of the discourse coming from Western sources? Do the so-called scholarly sources seem to focus on topics that are significantly different from the more popular sources (NYT, The Guardian)? Can I notice distinctions in patterns and priorities depending on the origin of the source (that is, do NGO publications, popular sources, government documents, and scholarly literature seem to agree or disagree with one another on rights issues)?

I began by conducting a wide-ranging review of recent texts, and I later narrowed my focus to examine the precise language these texts were using to discuss, promote, or hinder various human rights concerns. In particular, I collected sources that discussed specific topics including economic injustice and inequality, transnational environmental violations of rights, and gender injustice (including how and why NGOs seem to play a prominent role in this area). Later, I began looking over chapter drafts to help Dr. Chowdhury identify areas that could use clarification or documentation. I read through his drafts and added relevant footnoted information, source citations, and suggestions for areas that might be developed further.

This project helped me conceptualize and reaffirm ways in which my field of study is relevant and applicable for helping to solve serious world issues and improve the lives of others. As I conducted my search for materials and my review of existing literature, I uncovered more and more social and cultural information and views which broadened and deepened my own worldview as well as my understanding of the trajectory of human rights. Furthermore, this research will hopefully contribute to Dr. Chowdhury’s writing, which will in turn make useful interjections and contributions to continuing discourse. I enhanced my organizational skills, learning to better focus my research while still keeping an open mind toward interesting tangential topics which emerged along the way. Though I was given guidelines and guidance throughout the project, I still made decisions about how heavily to weight various topics, where to find my sources, and how to interpret the language used in source materials. These responsibilities helped me hone my research process and develop my own understanding of contemporary human rights instead of having a particular understanding delegated to me. As I continue to work on this project, it has been exciting to see how the work I do while earning my degree can contribute to helpful scholarship on human rights and also prepare me to be a better-informed and more active citizen.

Faculty Teaching, Student Research, Undergraduate English

The 2016 Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

Wikipedia-LogoWikipedia is one of our most important sources of information today. In a Google search, it is often the first hit. Wikipedia is usually the easiest means of accessing information and, as such, it tends to color our first impressions; oftentimes, it may be our only source of information. What’s represented is important, of course, but it’s also important to ask what’s missing.

And what’s missing on Wikipedia is women’s voices. An official reporting of Wikipedia membership composition tells us that, “Among respondents only 12.64% of contributors are female.”[1] And another review of the database reveals hundreds of names of women artists whose entries either need to be created or expanded.[2]

It was in response to this lack of representation that an annual and international event was created, the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Held in early March, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Edit-a-thon is a self-described “campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia, and to encourage female editorship.”[3] It has developed a strong presence here in the Twin Cities. This year, volunteers gathered on March 5 at the Central Library in Minneapolis. And as part of a class project this semester, each student in Dr. Emily James’s “Literature by Women” course participated in the cause.

Minnesota_Art_and_Feminism_logo400Each of us wrote and edited entries on women and women’s issues that we felt could be better represented. Throughout class this semester, we’ve been exploring issues of gender representation and voice, and this was a chance for us to see these things in practice.

It was an endeavor we met with varying levels of success. Anne Youngblood ran into some difficulties with her entry on Wisconsin pioneer and writer Elizabeth Baird.[4] For starters, there was the lack of information anywhere. “It was hard because I think it was the most minor figure I’ve researched on the Internet,” said Youngblood. “What I did find was good, but it wasn’t like Michael Jackson with a million hits.” And then, of course, there were the technical difficulties. Youngblood’s efforts were initially rejected by Wikipedia’s roving censors, by way of a simple notification that popped up on her screen.

For others, the project went fairly well. Meaghan Scott wrote an entry on Immaculée Ilibagiza[5], Rwandan author of Left to Tell and a survivor of genocide. Scott’s own editing experience went smoothly. “It was actually pretty easy,” Scott said of her research on Ilibagiza’s book.

My own experience was initially fraught with difficulties. Despite being a prominent author, there isn’t a lot of information available about Mary Pope Osborne[6] (of Magic Tree House fame) on the web. Gathering reliable sources of information was the first difficulty. Sure, there was her main website, with its single-paragraph biography, but that hardly dealt with the deep stuff. I had to dig pretty far into the web for the more concrete details about Osborne’s personal life history.

With the extensive amount of patrolling bots and editors, writing for Wikipedia is a bit harder than we might have initially expected. The difficulty of writing for Wikipedia is itself similar to the difficulty women had in getting heard in the first place. Authorship is largely male and white. The most extensive articles are largely about male artists and public figures. To break into either of these spheres is to go against the status quo of the database. And it’s only natural that Wikipedia and its editors might be a little watchful of attempts to change, as necessary as they may be.

The fact is, women’s voices are largely new. They’ve been unheard for centuries, and we’re really only now getting to experience a world with them in it. Initiatives like the Edit-a-thon are about encouraging us to listen to these voices.

It’s hard to speak for a group of twenty people, but I’m confident in saying that I know that each of us appreciated this chance to narrow the gender gap and participate in the cause of equal female representation online. Many thanks to Dr. James and those helpers at Wikipedia for the opportunity, and I encourage readers to increase representation in public databases like Wikipedia. Because every voice deserves a chance to be heard.

[1] http://www.ris.org/uploadi/editor/1305050082Wikipedia_Overview_15March2010-FINAL.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Meetup/ArtAndFeminism/Tasks

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Meetup/ArtAndFeminism

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Baird_%28writer%29

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immacul%C3%A9e_Ilibagiza

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pope_Osborne

Molohan

Joseph “Joe” Molohon is a senior majoring in English (Writing Emphasis) and minoring in Communications and Journalism. He is also an executive member of Purple Gloves and an editor for the Summit Avenue Review this year. Future plans include work on a funded research project in the summer and grad school next year.